Special Report: Comparing the counties

Baldwin County, Alabama continues to be one of the fastest growing counties in the country. Population growth there is roughly three times the state average, showing over a seven percent increase just in the last three years.

Quality of schools, life and a low crime rate are all reasons people give for moving their families to Baldwin County, but are these just perceptions or reality?

Given a choice, we seek out the best areas we can to raise a family. People continue to move to Baldwin County because of this. But, are the standards that much higher than in Mobile County when it comes to quality of life?

INFRASTRUCTURE

At the rate Baldwin County’s growing, there are already growing pains. To keep up with the pace of growth, changes have to come. If they don’t, some researchers say it could cripple Baldwin’s economy. Annual-population-change-by

Nearly 50,000 more people moved to Baldwin County between 2000 and 2010, and experts expect that number to triple again in the next 25 years. It sounds exciting, but with the way the highway infrastructure stands now, it truly scares the experts.

“Our transportation system and the economy are linked. They cannot be separated and if our transportation network does not function efficiently, our economy suffers and when our economy suffers we all suffer. There’s no way to get around that,” said Matthew Brown with the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Brown is charged with making recommendations on infrastructure improvements.

He’s not the only one concerned with Baldwin’s fast-paced growth. County Engineer Cal Markert knows the people are coming and to meet the transportation needs of those people, there are several key road projects ahead.

“One eighty one, 31, 13 interchange as you mentioned, Baldwin Beach Express up to I-65. That’s some of the major priorities within the county,” Markert said.

Knowing where to make improvements is the easy part. Paying for those improvements is where it gets tricky.

With fewer state and federal highway dollars expected, it will take new funding to get it done. If it doesn’t get done, the consequences could be dire.

“Our 2040 model shows that if we make no changes to our network between 2010 and 2040, our network will be a complete gridlock by 2040 – basically unusable,” Brown said.

EDUCATION

Spanish Fort is one of the fastest growing parts of the county and projections have it growing at an even faster pace in years to come. Rockwell Elementary is already adding classrooms to accommodate more students, but experts say soon, additions to schools just won’t be enough.

“When I saw the crisis that appears to be coming down the road, no pun intended, I was really caught off guard by it,” said Dr. Alan Lee, the Baldwin County Public School System superintendent. “They’ve got enough portables there to pretty much fill that wing quickly, so in that area we’re going to have to build a school some place to take the pressure off Rockwell and the Spanish Fort feeder pattern.”

Rockwell and Spanish Fort aren’t alone. Construction of new classroom wings is going on elsewhere as well.

So, are the schools that much better in Baldwin County than Mobile County? One of the major factors school systems are judged by is standardized testing.Eight-Grade-Reading-ARMT-pe

Each year, students in grades three through eight are tested on reading and math. In 2013, the last year of the ARMT Test,  Mobile County schools out-performed Baldwin schools with notable differences in the above average, average and below average categories.

The graduation rate is another way to look at the success of a school system.

Mobile County schools’ graduation rate has jumped by five percent in 2012, from 70 to 75 percent in 2013. Baldwin County showed an increase from 2012 to 2013 of six percent, putting them at the 80 percent graduation mark.

With graduation rates already on the rise, Mobile County Schools Superintendent, Martha Peek hopes that trend will continue.

“We anticipate it increasing to an even higher percentage this year. Also, our signature academies that our students are moving into and excelling in. Our elementary students that are having great success with reading, literacy and mathematics. So, overall our success stories are all 59,000 students who are moving forward academically,” Peek said.High-School-completion-rate

Mobile schools and roads have their growing pains, too.

As the population continues to migrate to the west and south, Baker High School has become one of the largest schools in the state and traffic on Airport Boulevard and other east-west arteries continues to get worse.

Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and both counties have their challenges, both logistically and financially. There are still plenty of folks that think things are moving too fast.

To that end, the Baldwin County School Board is putting a high emphasis on partnerships with trade schools to offer hands-on learning opportunities to its students.

CRIME RATE

Crime rate and public safety are other big factors in determining quality of life. Mobile does have a considerably higher violent crime rate, which includes murders, assaults and rapes. Baldwin County’s is much lower, but with its growing population it’s seen more crime dealing with property and drugs.

In his 2013 report, Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack cited methamphetamine and marijuana as the two most significant drug threats in the county. However, they are now seeing new issues rise to the surface.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in heroin use in Baldwin County. Another thing that’s on the radar, particularly in our service industry. We have been very mindful that in other heavily populated areas human trafficking has become an issue, directly as it relates to people coming from other countries,” said Sheriff Mack.

Mack pointed out that here have been no documented cases of human trafficking yet.

While Baldwin County’s overall crime rate for 2013 was down considerably from 2012, there were a couple of categories with notable increases.

Juvenile sex crimes were up 17 percent and business robberies were up a whopping 50 percent. Murders on the other hand, were down 75 percent, with only one in 2013.

Mobile County has also seen an increase in heroin use as prescription drugs become harder to get.

Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said the amount of violent crime is still a concern.

“We’re constantly addressing issues of violent crime, but while it may appear to some that violent crime is up, actually violent crime has been trending down for a long time,” Sheriff Cochran said.

As arrests are made, jails begin to swell. A big challenge for both counties will be jail expansion.

In Baldwin County females are the fastest growing segment of the jail population – a population that has exceeded its capacity for beds more than once in the last year. It will be another funding issue for the county moving forward.

“What we’re doing today is we’re trying to look five years down the road. Five years down the road, what will we need? Five years down the road, what’s it going to cost to do that? Nobody wants any higher taxes and nobody wants any additional fees,” said Mack.

Cochran also has concerns over inmate populations.

“It’s a common thing that we’re well over the population that the jail was built for by several hundred, but we’re also down a couple of hundred from where we’ve been,” he said.

There is no magic fix and as the saying goes, ‘You can’t stop progress.’ The people are coming and the real challenge ahead is how to manage the growth and still keep the unique elements of Baldwin County that make it the fastest growing county in the state.

OTHER ITEMS OF NOTE

Baldwin County has applied for a $10 million grant to address the Fish River basin water flow. They want to create a 100 acre wetland that would help alleviate the flow of storm water in the future.

The other massive project that is on everyone’s list is the widening of Interstate 10 from Mobile all the way to the Florida line. As Airbus goes online and other industry moves in, officials say that will be a key element in driving the economic engine of our area.  How that will be paid for and when it will happen are the magic questions.

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