While the COVID-19 pandemic remains an obstacle, city officials expect 2021 to bring growth, beautification and a thriving economy to Decatur.
The coronavirus has had a far-reaching impact on the health and economic well-being of residents since the first Morgan County case was detected in March, but the gradual rollout of vaccines is giving people hope.
“2020 was one of survival and maintenance,” Mayor Tab Bowling said. “Now we ask ourselves how can we provide the same level of service to our residents we always have.”
John Seymour, president and CEO of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, said he’s optimistic life will return to something like normal this year.
“I think we’ll start seeing things open up by the summer, but it probably won’t be like it was,” Seymour said Friday. “We’ve got to get people to take the vaccine shots.”
Some health care workers began receiving the vaccine shots in December, but members of the general public who want the shots are still waiting.
Bowling said the resumption of the annual Decatur Morgan Hospital Foundation Dragon Boat Race in late spring — canceled last year because of the pandemic — would be a good sign that life is getting back to normal.
Secondary to the illnesses and deaths from the virus is its economic impact. The city budget withstood the pandemic in fiscal 2020, and Bowling and Councilman Carlton McMasters said the city now is waiting for the end of January and a report on business license revenues, which are based on a business’s annual receipts.
“It’s hard to say what can be done until we see those results,” McMasters said.
Seymour said he expects 2021 to feature more jobs and growth. He sees tourism increasing with spots like the Cook Museum of Natural Science and Point Mallard Park seeing more visitors.
“We’re in a position for the economy to open back up,” Seymour said. “People will start getting out and about again and start shopping and spending.”
Decatur had developers of seven major subdivisions go through the city approval process in the last 18 months with plans for more than 450 new homes. At least three of these subdivisions could begin selling homes by spring or early summer.
Seymour said the chamber has had discussions with other developers interested in the city. He said Decatur needs an upscale apartment complex for professionals working at companies like the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant in Limestone County and the new FBI facility in Huntsville.
“We need to get people to live here and show them this is the place they want to stay,” Seymour said. “And some people prefer an apartment.”
Seymour said he expects some lofts and apartments to open up this year in the Bank Street area.
The city helped Howard Morris and his family start a subdivision off Old River Road by spending almost $1 million to add 3,000 feet of sewer main to the planned site, but Bowling said this used up almost all of the money in a growth development account funded by water sales to other counties. The fund had a $483,000 balance at the start of fiscal 2021, and it added only $20,340 in each of the last two years.
Bowling said the city isn’t getting any money from Limestone County, which he said planned to buy water to resell to Huntsville but lost its contract with Huntsville.
“We’ve got to find a new source of income for this growth fund so we’re ready to help the next developer who wants to build here,” Bowling said.
Another major growth issue is the development of Decatur in Limestone County. City Engineer Carl Prewitt said last week construction of a roughly $18.2 million overpass on Alabama 20 is expected to begin by March.
“We welcome the construction of the Alabama 20 overpass for mixed-use development sparked by the regional growth we are experiencing,” Bowling said.
City officials hope the overpass will prompt development of the entire corridor, including 600 acres on the south side of Alabama 20 at Interstates 65 and 565. A development anchored by a Bass Pro Shops fell through in 2014, but Bowling said others have expressed interest in the property.
“I expect we’ll start seeing developers start knocking on our doors soon who want to build on this property,” Bowling said. “Many are already talking with Crystal Brown (who is vice president of development) of the chamber.
“I think we will have a development when the overpass construction begins or before it’s finished.”
Bowling said the city needs to get its new zoning district plan approved this year, especially so builders know what to expect in this mostly undeveloped area of the city north of the Tennessee River.
The mayor said consultant Clarion Associates is expected to present the second half of a proposed zoning plan early this year. The City Council would then have to approve it.
Bowling said city leaders also need to begin looking for property in which to eventually build a fire station in Limestone County.
Beautification of the city has been discussed for a number of years, and Council President Jacob Ladner said he’s looking forward to moving forward on a proposal to improve the gateway into Decatur along Sixth Avenue from the river bridge to Delano Park.
The plan, which officials estimate will cost $5 million to $6 million to implement, was presented to the Alabama Department of Transportation last week, Bowling said.
The plan is expected to be presented to the public in February, said Stratton Orr, chairman of a committee focused on improving the city for development.
Seymour pointed out that some steps have already begun. Lucky’s Supermarket at Sixth Avenue and Lee Street was recently demolished. The Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority is leading the effort to landscape the property where an oil change shop once sat on the east side of Sixth Avenue. The council recently approved landscaping the median between the south ends of the two river bridges at the Wilson Street and Sixth Avenue intersection.
Two major issues have already been presented to the City Council for action this year. The first is changes that would make it easier for food trucks to operate in the city. That proposed ordinance has support from the council majority and the Planning Commission.
Decatur Utilities asked the council to approve a 10-year sewer replacement plan that would require monthly rate increases for the typical residential customer of $12 in the first year, $6 in the second year and $4 in the third year.
While most councilmen support the increase, Councilmen Hunter Pepper and Carlton McMasters said they have questions for DU General Manager Ray Hardin at Monday’s 5 p.m. work session.
McMasters said the sewer main replacement is necessary to stop the large number of sewer overflows that have plagued the city in recent years.
“It’s a necessary evil, but I do have some questions,” McMasters said. “It is better for us to do this work before (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management) gets involved.”
ADEM sued the utility over the sewer overflows in 2019, but court filings indicate the lawsuit is on hold as settlement negotiations progress.
Councilman Billy Jackson recently questioned why more of the burden won’t be placed on industries instead of residents, many of whom are low-income.
Bowling said it’s important the city and DU develop a plan to repair and repave the streets after the sewer pipes, many of which are below roads, are replaced.
He said the city has $1.3 million budgeted to pave 23 streets. Other street projects funded by the state include Beltline Road intersection corrections, Church Street Northeast paving near Bunge, completion of Shady Grove Lane Southwest and the Red Bank Road-U.S. 31 intersection realignment.
Pepper and McMasters said they would like to find additional money to pave more roads.
“My biggest priority is more paving,” Pepper said.
Two major city positions, director of development and chief financial officer, are scheduled to be filled this year.
The groundwork recently began on a new Station 5 for Decatur Fire & Rescue on Danville Road Southwest, and Bowling said the 9,000-square-foot station should take about 16 months to build.
Bowling said the city also plans to spend about $1.8 million renovating Carrie Matthews Recreation Center, which has been sinking due to bad soil under the foundation.
Pepper said he would like to look for ways fund a cost-of-living raise for employees and increase the pay and incentives for firefighters and police officers. He said both first responder groups need additional personnel.