FLORENCE — Mayor Steve Holt highlighted several progress points and areas where there’s room for improvement during a state-of-the-city update at Florence Rotary Club’s Monday meeting.
He touched on the city’s low unemployment rate, completed and planned improvement projects, the benefits of the 1-cent sales tax increase, and the success of “game-changers” like ShoalsFest.
But among the most crucial of the topics was the upcoming 2020 census.
Holt stressed the need for everyone to participate in the “headcount” to accurately represent growth not just in the city, but in the state.
“It is absolutely critical to us as a city and to the state of Alabama because we’re at risk,” he said. “Not that Alabama hasn’t grown … but the issue is that Texas and Florida and other states have grown a whole lot more and by a higher percentage, so we end up running the risk of losing a seat in the House of Representatives. We need everybody counted.”
Measured growth plays a key role in not only bringing popular retailers like Publix and Starbucks to the area, but also in the state’s decision to provide more funds to certain cities, Holt explained.
Funds for the state’s “Rebuild Alabama” roadwork initiative is one example of this. While Madison’s population is comparable to Florence, Holt said Madison received more funds.
Repaving roads has been a priority, he added. This past year, Florence spent about $1.5 million addressing all of the worst-ranked streets, and city officials are now looking at several more. About $2 million of this fiscal year’s $69.4 million budget is allocated for paving projects, including Rickwood Road from Helton to Chisholm.
“It got postponed by the state until September 2020, so we’re having to look at it because it’s rough and we need to deal with it,” Holt said. “We’ll have to look at it from several ways, but nevertheless, that’s our next big project that’s a state partnership.”
Also high on the list this year are improvements to one of the fire stations and the first floor of the Police Department facility. After that, the city will work toward second-floor improvements and renovations of the remaining fire stations.
Several sections of Veterans Park — the ball fields, pavilions, disc golf area and tennis courts — have also been rehabbed.
“That’s what we set out to do is to get all of our maintenance and repairs up to date and current with our arts and museums," Holt said. "We’ve done it with our parks and recreation, and we’re starting with our fire and police. We’ve got a lot more to go this year, and we’ll continue to do that until we get everything where it needs to be.”
Holt said the city is also looking at building a new parking deck along Pine Street to replace the current one, which concrete tests have shown is “at the end of its life.”
Florence’s 1958 City Hall building is in a similar situation.
Other items on the agenda include looking at gig-city potential (having ultra high-speed broadband capability) and developing guidelines for short-term rentals.
“We do not have anything in our city code to address it,” Holt said. “It’s a new phenomenon, as it is for other cities across the country — and the world, for that matter — so our planning department has drafted some concepts for us to go by, and that will be up to the mayor and council to determine how we’re going to address the issue of short-term rentals.”
As the city grows, Holt said the industrial park may need to expand. Only about 100 acres remain.
“That’s something that we probably should have been planning on years ago, but nevertheless, that’s where we are today,” he said. “The city of Florence needs additional industrial property to continue to grow in the way that it needs to grow. We’re constantly looking for that opportunity to find developable property that is somewhere close to our utilities that we can make that happen.”
While Holt said small business and industry are the city’s bread and butter, he sees potential for participating in the growth of Huntsville’s Toyota-Mazda facility.
After two decades of negative population growth, Holt said the 2010 census indicated an 8% positive growth rate. He hopes the 2020 census will be even higher and help Florence accomplish even more.
“I’d like to see 10% growth here because that makes a difference in everything we do,” he said.