Jobs, a new blueprint for Decatur schools, the completion of a massive road project, more shops and restaurants, and even a new water ride await local residents in 2013.
Months of planning and millions of dollars in investment will bear fruit in a string of projects ranging from commercial (Market Shoppes) to historical (L&N railroad depot restoration) to entertainment (new Carmike Cinemas).
Here’s what we’re looking forward to in the year ahead:
Alabama seeks BCS title
1. The storied Crimson Tide football program could become the first to win three national championships since the Bowl Championship Series began in 1999. But coach Nick Saban and his team will have to go through an equally storied rival in No. 1-ranked Notre Dame on Monday night in Miami. If Alabama wins, Saban can hoist the crystal football trophy overhead, which he already has done twice in the past three years.
New jobs coming here
2. A slew of industrial expansions and start-ups in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties will create up to 1,700 jobs for local residents. The addition of new plants, coupled with the expansions of existing ones, represents a combined $1.8 billion investment in the tri-county area over the next few years. Soon, the area will be churning out more steel and steel alloys, processed grain and soybeans, rockets and refrigerators. Add whiskey barrels to that list with the new $60 million Brown-Foreman plant beginning construction in Hillsboro, bringing 200 jobs, and plastic films with the $187 million Polyplex building under way in Decatur, adding 150 positions. Across the Tennessee River, the $200 million Carpenter Technology plant will bring 200 jobs to Tanner and another 120 will come to Limestone County with Electricfil’s $9.5 million facility. Busche is investing $200 million to operate in Hartselle’s former Copeland plant, creating another 200 jobs. Many of the industrial positions are being filled through the Alabama Industrial Development Training program.
Strategic schools plan
3. The Decatur city school system will create a strategic plan to improve the quality of education, academic and athletic facilities, and extracurricular opportunities. Nearly 500 residents attended public “brainstorming” sessions in December to discuss ideas such as rebuilding Decatur High and expanding Austin, creating a technical school and restoring Ogle Stadium or constructing a new athletic facility for both schools. Public comments will be combined with a Georgia firm’s facilities study to form a strategic plan to better compete with neighboring school systems. The first draft will be unveiled in this month, Superintendent Ed Nichols said.
12-screen theater at Decatur Mall
4. For years, residents and officials have complained about Decatur’s silver-screen options: the now-closed Regal Cinemas behind the mall and the dated Carmike Cinema on 14th Street Southeast. Many have opted to drive to Huntsville and even Cullman to catch films. In coming weeks, the mall owners plan to open a state-of-the-art theater to keep local moviegoers in town and shopping at the Beltline Road commercial center. The theater will feature ticket kiosks, stadium seating and the state’s only BigD format auditorium, which is described as “high-definition on steroids.” The old Carmike will close once the new theater opens.
5. Nearly a decade after the widening of Decatur’s main commercial artery to six lanes began, state Department of Transportation crews will look to complete the massive road project. The final phase runs from U.S. 31 to Danville Road, a three-mile stretch of highway that many restaurants and shopping centers call home. Two lanes of traffic will be merged into one each way and speed limits reduced to 25 mph, making commutes longer and drivers’ patience shorter. However, once the work is complete by 2014, the six-mile thoroughfare will easily accommodate the 40,000 vehicles that travel the Beltline daily.
New stores open on Sixth Avenue
6. Decatur residents will have two new places to shop on Sixth Avenue this spring with the opening of Market Shoppes and a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market grocery store. A Kohl’s will anchor Market Shoppes, accompanied by smaller shops such as an ULTA Salon and Mattress Firm. The 80,000-square foot retail development replaces a mobile home dealer and defunct gas station on the northwest corner of U.S. 31/Beltline Road. Farther north on Sixth Avenue, residents of Point Mallard and historic Old Decatur and Albany districts will be able to stock their kitchens with organic produce and artisan breads and cheeses from the new upscale grocery store going up on the corner of Eighth Street.
Construction begins on Phase 2 of Arts Center
7. Downtown Decatur’s skyline will feature another structure this year with the construction of Phase 2 of the Alabama Center for the Arts. Officials with Athens State University and Calhoun Community College selected Birmingham architecture firm LIVE Design Group last month to draw up plans for the $10 million, 45,000-square-foot building to go up behind Phase 1 on Second Avenue Southeast. Phase 2 will house classrooms, labs, a recording studio, rehearsal rooms, instructor offices and a black box theater for the center’s drama and music programs.
Decatur’s growing annexation into Limestone County
8. Decaturites have felt the River City was a college town with Calhoun Community College across the Tennessee River in Tanner. But last month, officials made it official, granting the 10-acre campus’ annexation request which expands Decatur’s boundaries north of Airport Road along U.S. 31 and adds police and fire protection. The inclusion is sure to foster more cooperation as Calhoun continues to partner with Athens State University, Decatur and Morgan County for development of the multimillion dollar downtown arts center. Meanwhile, Decatur continues to court developers to build a hotel, shopping center and residential subdivisions near the I-565/I-65 interchange. It seems the vision Decatur leaders had decades ago to expand across the Tennessee River is poised to come to fruition in the near future.
New high schools
9. Hartselle’s $44 million high school should be ready for students by late February or early March, while Morgan County embarks on financing and building a new Priceville High School. Hartselle’s new campus sits on 50 acres on Bethel Road. It’s designed to hold 1,200 students, grades ninth through 12th, with 88 classrooms and two elevators. No decision has been made yet about whether students will move in mid-spring semester or wait until the fall. Its $2 million athletic complex has undergone minor design changes — increasing its costs by an estimated $220,000 — to make it compliant with federal Title IX requirements to ensure fairness for girls and boys. Meanwhile, the Morgan County school board will launch plans to construct a school estimated to cost between $16 million and $20 million on 55 acres purchased farther north of Hartselle’s new school on Bethel Road to relieve crowding at Priceville’s existing campus on Alabama 67.
Huntsville’s development in East Limestone
10. Depending on your point of view, the sprawling 9,000 acres of east Limestone County land annexed into Huntsville last year for development holds exciting possibilities for the Rocket City or potentially troublesome consequences for nearby Athens. Huntsville’s master plan for the property south of U.S. 72, east of I-65 and north of I-565, features mixed-use villages surrounding a 1,500-acre employment anchor — speculated to be a new Research Park or car plant. Ten thousand to 12,000 single- and multi-family homes will be laid out on a grid pattern beside office, retail and industrial space. The proposed development’s “greenprint” emphasis would leave many existing trees, flood plains and wetlands untouched, while trails would connect parks, businesses and residential neighborhoods. However, its proximity to Athens worries city leaders. They fear residents may be lured away from their own growing subdivisions and retail centers to the new Huntsville shops and homes, taking a chunk of its tax base with them.
Priceville to start selling alcohol
11.Priceville residents no longer will have to drive across Decatur’s Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge to purchase alcoholic beverages after voters decided to go wet in August. However, officials seem to be in no hurry to draft an ordinance allowing the sale of alcohol, with Mayor Melvin Duran saying town leaders have no timetable to get one passed. The town of 2,500 passed the measure 628 to 597. They’re considering Cullman’s highly restrictive alcohol ordinance, which doesn’t allow businesses to advertise. Ordinances for Athens and Moulton are also being reviewed. Priceville officials have not said how much revenue they believe alcohol sales could generate for its budget.
Lazy River opening at Point Mallard
12. When Point Mallard water park opens Memorial Day weekend, visitors are sure to line up to try out its new $3 million Lazy River water ride. The attraction will boast a 1,000-foot winding river for swimmers to ride floating tubes through a series of water curtains and geysers and past a waterfall mountain, splash pad and lounge area. New speed slides, restrooms, lockers, concessions, entrance grate and revamped Olympic pool will greet patrons next summer as well. The expansion is expected to create a double-digit increase in revenue at the 42-year-old park.
Restoration of old L&N railroad depot
13. The 112-year-old railroad depot off Vine Street Northeast has fallen into disrepair in the years since it was built as a central point for arriving and departing travelers and commodities. But city leaders’ $2 million plan would restore the brick and wooden structure to its prior glory and give it a new use: housing police offices and a transportation museum. The city wants to purchase the property from its owner by April and begin renovating the depot with a combination of federal funds, a local match, Decatur Downtown Redevelopment money and private donations. If accomplished, the project would connect Bank Street and Second Avenue shops to historic black neighborhoods in Northwest Decatur and act as a springboard for further downtown revitalization.
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