By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Note: Today’s article is the first in a two-part series about the shortage of available homes and apartments in Atmore and the surrounding area. Part 2 will deal with possible solutions to the problem.
Atmore and Escambia County economic development officials anticipate a significant increase in the community’s population as more and more industrial and retail projects are completed.
They feel as though the area has or will soon have everything a new resident might want or need. Well, almost everything.
“The issue we’re running into here is same issue we’re running into right now in Brewton and, really, our whole region — it’s a problem in Monroe County; it’s a problem in North Baldwin, it’s a problem in South Baldwin — is a lack of residential,” said Jess Nicholas, who serves as industrial recruiter for Escambia County Economic Development Authority. “Not only do we need people for a lot of these jobs, but we need housing.
“I think that’s probably our biggest challenge because if you don’t fix that, as far as your overall development strategy, where are you going get your workers from?”
Mayor Jim Staff confirmed the economic development specialist’s assessment, as projections are the recent and ongoing growth spurts in the industrial and retail landscapes could bring as many as 700 new jobs to the city and surrounding area.
“We’ve got to have a place for folks who move here to live,” said Staff. “If we bring them (people) in here, it’s going bring everything else here, but we’ve got to get them in here first. With all those jobs, they’ve got to live somewhere. We want some of them to stay here. Prison guards, peanut mill workers, there’s going to be about 600 new jobs. How many people does that translate to, with families? It’s a bunch.”
Local realtor Bub Gideons said new home construction has been almost non-existent in and around the city, and city records back him up. According to data provided by the City of Atmore’s Code Enforcement Office, only seven permits were issued for new houses last year, only two of those over the last six months of the year.
“As far as the housing market, all we have is flips and resells,” Gideons said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do if we don’t get more houses. It’s going to be a real problem.”
While affordable homes are few and far between, multi-family residences are even harder to find.
“That’s where we’re hurting the most,” Gideons said. “Sizemore and McRae [apartment complexes] are about it. Not everybody is a homeowner.”
Nicholas expressed similar sentiments.
“There is some home building going on, probably not enough of it right now, but we probably need more in multi-family space,” he said. “That’s part of our recruitment process now, too. It’s not just about recruiting jobs; we’ve got to recruit for people. Very fortunately, both Mayor Staff in Atmore and Mayor [Yank] Lovelace in Brewton understand that perfectly.”
Staff admitted that officials probably didn’t realize until it was almost too late that the ongoing and impending housing crunches could stagnate the growth of the city and its economy. They first became aware that they would have to make meeting the basic needs of new industrial and other business concerns a top priority.
“We’ve got a lot of infrastructure, like roads, that we’re going to have to do,” the mayor said. “We’re getting there, but we should have done it a long time ago, but … We’ve got to work on that, and we’ve got to find somewhere for new folks to live.”