Oxford fueling its economic engine
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Jul 31, 2013 | 5228 views |  0 comments | 125 125 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A sign for a new subdivision being built near Oxford off Kelly Lynn Drive with a "Oxford School District" sign attached. Photo by Stephen Gross.
A sign for a new subdivision being built near Oxford off Kelly Lynn Drive with a "Oxford School District" sign attached. Photo by Stephen Gross.
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If sales taxes are the fuel for cities' economic engines, then Oxford has struck oil.

Again.

In the last 20 years, Oxford has expanded its reach along Interstate 20, building up large retail sites around the freeway's exits and raking in the sales tax revenue they generate. The Oxford City Council continued that trend Tuesday, annexing 411 acres of farmland next to I-20 and its U.S. 431 interchange, gaining another site for potential retail development.

Meanwhile, with Oxford now in control of four area I-20 exits, Anniston is now effectively cut off from interstate-based development. Economic, city planning and marketing experts say that in a state like Alabama where sales taxes are the dominant form of revenue, high-traffic areas like interstate exits are among the best ways to lure retailers and generate money cities can use to improve services and school systems.

Anniston is trying to counter its shrinking revenue base with hopes of luring retail and industry through development of McClellan and the nearby intersection of Alabama 21 and Veterans Memorial Parkway. But after a decade of delays on the bypass, and of court battles over who had statutory authority to develop fort properties, progress has been meager compared to expectations.

Arthur Allaway, professor of marketing at the University of Alabama, said interchanges can be big revenue generators for nearby cities.

"You can get a truck stop but also retail, if there is a residential area nearby," Allaway said. "Then what you've got is a whole retail shopping experience."

Allaway added that Oxford made a good decision in acquiring another interstate interchange.

"That will be an excellent source of revenue for a long time," Allaway said.

Bill Curtis, executive director of the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, agreed with Allaway about the importance of interchanges.

"Interchanges tend to be a focal point for development in areas where there have not been growth ... first with nearby highway development which then leads to expanding out to other forms of development," Curtis said.

Curtis said Oxford's Leon Smith Parkway, which leads to exit 188 of I-20, where the Oxford Exchange and Oxford Commons shopping complex are located, is a good example of such development.

"It started slowly ... but now it is a concentration of retail," Curtis said.

Oxford Councilman Mike Henderson, who previously served on the council from 2000 through 2008, said gaining control of I-20's interchanges and developing retail near them was discussed among city leadership for years.

"It was discussed, not necessarily as a formalized plan, but to do it as the opportunity presented itself," Henderson said.

Henderson said he and other Oxford leaders hope to develop the city's newest annexed land in similar fashion to its other I-20 interchanges.

Those interchanges have already helped put millions of dollars in sales taxes into Oxford's coffers. Keivan Deravi, economist at Auburn University Montgomery, said sales taxes are the lifeblood of cities in Alabama.

"Cities have two major sources of funding; sales taxes and property taxes," Deravi said. "Sales taxes play a major role in developing schools ... and a good school system attracts business and population."

Oxford's school system has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, from new technology to a new high school. The Oxford school system this week began distributing Apple MacBook Air laptops to approximately 1,275 ninth- through 12th-grade students. The laptops will cost the district about $700,000 annually for four years — an undertaking it can afford due to sales tax revenue.

"The city would not have been able to do any of that stuff if it had not been blessed to become the retail hub of Calhoun County," Henderson said of the laptops and other city projects.

In contrast, the Anniston school system is relying heavily on grants, such as a $100,000 donation from the Public Education Foundation of Anniston, for projects to upgrade its career technology programs and to install new technology in classrooms. The city government last week committed $121,600 to that effort.

Toby Bennington, Anniston's city planner, acknowledges Oxford's advantage from controlling I-20's interchanges. However, Bennington said Anniston's and Oxford's strategies are somewhat different, adding that Anniston still has great potential for retail and industrial development at McClellan and the nearby Alabama 21 and Veteran's Memorial Parkway intersection, where Anniston Middle School is located.

Bennington said the city plans to remove the middle school and use the land for retail development. The retail aspect, combined with the parkway's connection to U.S. 431, which ultimately connects with both I-20 and Interstate 59, will help lure in industrial development at nearby McClellan, Bennington said.

"I'm not familiar with what Oxford is planning ... but in the case of Anniston, we're taking a more broad view," Bennington said.

However, those plans have been held back partially due to delays in the parkway's completion, but also due to the slow progress of talks between the Anniston City Council and school board about the middle school property. The school board recently agreed to close the school.

"Obviously, the City Council and Board of Education need to and are continuing to work on that transition of the middle school, but that doesn't stop the planning," Bennington said.

Bennington said that between 2014 and 2015, he expects work to be completed on the parkway, along with the connection of Iron Mountain Road and Pappy Dunn Road, which will make McClellan a more enticing site for industry.

In any case, Allaway expects retail development to continue in the area for years to come, since it is an ideal stopping point between Atlanta and Birmingham.

"An awful lot of growth is going to end up in Anniston and Oxford because they are the closest midpoint between Atlanta and Birmingham," Allaway said.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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