By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
City of Atmore officials and economic development professionals are smiling over the recent and ongoing local construction boom.
But they’re scratching their heads to try and find or create living space for an expected influx of new residents who will work at the new factory, medical facilities and other businesses which have located, or will locate, here.
A pandemic-fueled spike in the cost of building materials, along with an almost non-existent inventory of available homes, have created a situation that could result in new workers commuting from nearby counties instead of moving here.
“It creates more of a challenge right now because building materials are still going up,” said Jess Nicholas, industrial and retail recruiter for Escambia County Economic Development Authority. “It’s hard to build affordable housing when building materials are not as affordable as they used to be. So, what we have to crack the nut on is, how do we get homes for the additional people that we expect to be taking jobs at the prison, at the peanut facility and other places.”
Although plans are stalled at the state level, Gov. Kay Ivey has announced that one of three state “super prisons” will be built outside Atmore, a project that is expected to create more than 200 new jobs. Coastal Growers has already begun operations of a peanut processing plant that is expected to employ 100 people.
“I think that’s probably our biggest challenge,” Nicholas continued. “If you don’t fix that, as far as your overall development strategy, where are you going to get workers from? You create a situation where companies are stealing workers from other companies to try and maintain a workforce.”
Atmore Mayor Jim Staff said city officials are working on several fronts to try and head off the housing problem, which would fuel new retail growth in one area of the city.
“There are three different development companies that want to put apartments out at Rivercane,” Staff said, noting that officials are trying to provide the infrastructure for such projects. “Two local companies are driving this. We’ve talked with (a major grocer) about locating here, and all they want is rooftops.”
One such location is the present site of a cell tower that is nearing the end of a long-term lease that began when the state still owned the property.
“That is a perfect spot to put an apartment complex, so that cell tower is going away,” the mayor said. “We have four more years left on the contract. They were paying the state $1,000 a year when we bought the land, and they’ve been paying us $1,000 a year since we bought it.”
Staff said the company, American Cell Tower, has offered to increase the yearly payment amount to $40,000 but wanted a 40-year lease.
“That would be a great place for doctors, nurses and other people who work at the new hospital, more of an upscale complex,” he said. “The city is looking at long-range development for Rivercane, and a part of that is going to be luxury apartment complexes. That would be perfect for doctors and others at the hospital.”
The mayor admitted that those with lesser-paying jobs would also need a place to live.
“We’ve got to have a place for the prison guards and peanut mill workers, too,” he said. “We need houses and apartments for all the new people coming here.
Another option is development of the land the city received from Escambia County Healthcare Authority in exchange for the 10-acre site on which the hospital and a new urgent care center will be built. The undeveloped property is adjacent to the current site of Atmore Community Hospital.
“That would be another good place,” Staff said. “It’s zoned R-1 (single family residential) right now, but that could be changed. It’s all woods right now, but we already have a right-of-way there, and it could be used for either single-family houses or apartments.”
A change in the 10-acre tract’s zoning would require approval from the homeowners and property owners in the area.
Nicholas admitted that Atmore has several older houses that could help alleviate the problem to some degree, were it not for stringent requirements of the country’s top government lending agencies.
“You have a lot of homes in Atmore that were built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that could be affordable, but they don’t meet the standards for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or Veterans Authority (VA) homes,” he explained.
He also said the option exists for developers and others, even government agencies, to buy houses, fix them up, then quickly sell them.
“Would it be cheaper to find some homes that are for sale that could be renovated for lesser cost than new homes could be built?” he asked. “We’re not going to solve the whole problem that way, but … are we going to get into the house-flipping business? I don’t know.”