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Baldwin County Schools
The new middle school in Orange Beach will be located at the site of the old wastewater treatment plant on Canal Road.
By John Mullen
September 22, 2017 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA) – Mayor Tony Kennon patiently waited as other council members made a few customary announcements near the start of the Sept. 19 meeting.
Kennon didn’t let on he was like a kid on Christmas, almost bursting with excitement with an announcement and guest he was about to introduce.
Tony Kennon
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.
Kennon then called up Baldwin County school Superintendent Eddie Tyler who said he plans on asking the board to build a new Orange Beach Middle School. The $15 million facility would be built at the site of the former wastewater treatment plant on the south side of Canal Road between the Sportsplex entrance and Sweetwater Drive.
On Sept. 21, the Baldwin County Board of Education voted to go ahead with the plan for the new middle school.
In a nearly four-hour marathon of a meeting, there were long discussions on two issues. The first was about rezoning property east of Zeke’s Marina from residential to commercial to make way for a Gulf Shores Power Sports boat sales and service facility. The council voted 6-0 to deny the change and preserve the nearby neighborhood.
And the last item on the agenda concerned an ordinance to raise lodging taxes in the city from 5 percent to 7 percent. The city wants to use the $4 million to $6 million generated by the new tax to find traffic solutions and help with the beach cleaning effort. After more than an hour of talks, the council passed the new tax 5-1 to with Councilman Jeff Boyd casting the only dissenting vote. The tax would be implemented starting May 1.
Eddie Tyler
Tyler stole the early show, however, with his proposal of the new school. He said part of the strategy in the plan would give the county a contingency plan if Gulf Shores decides to form its own city system. The board put on hold a plan to spend $3.8 million expanding Gulf Shores Elementary while the city studies forming its own system.
Initially, the new building will be able to have 750 students, Tyler said, but with expansion, the capability to hold a 1,000.
“I told Mayor Craft that, of course, I don’t want to see a breakaway, but if for some reason there is a split, we’re protecting our interests here in Orange Beach,” Tyler said. “Kind of like Elberta, it would have a footprint to go to a 7-12 high school and accommodate 1,000.”
Craft said the first he heard of the plan for an Orange Beach Middle School about two hours before Tyler spoke to the council on Sept. 19.
“A significantly altered capital improvement plan for the Gulf Shores High School feeder pattern was an unexpected surprise to me and the members of our City Council,” Craft said in a released statement. “The complete absence of communication while this plan was being engineered is perplexing.
“While I am encouraged that the Baldwin County Board of Education now has $15 million available to invest in our feeder pattern, their neglect to incorporate any input or involvement from our community into the development of a plan of this magnitude is extremely disappointing.”
Kennon, who was an active supporter of an independent Orange Beach school system in 2014, he said this partnership with the county came out of that defeat.
“We had our referendum three years ago and I think our citizens made it clear to us they wanted us to work with the county,” Kennon said. “The county reached out to us and we’ve been working very hard for this. And we appreciate this and the superintendent, who’s been a great asset.”
Gulf Shores Elementary School is one of the most overcrowded schools in the 30,000-plus student county system and the current island middle school and the elementary are on the same property.
“It will just be a process of taking everybody out of Gulf Shores Middle School,” Tyler said. “We have plans to take the elementary school and migrate it and make it bigger into the middle school. We’re not going to build additional wings. We’re going to alleviate about one-third of the traffic there.”
More than 1,000 kids are currently enrolled at GSES, a school initially built for 500 then expanded to 690 with new classrooms. There are 11 portable classrooms on the campus. Gulf Shores Middle School houses around 450 students, 63 percent of those from Gulf Shores, 27 percent from Orange Beach and the rest from Ono Island, Fort Morgan and unincorporated areas near both cities.
“This is going to be big for Orange Beach, Gulf Shores,” Tyler said. “I think it’s a win for everybody.”
The first plan for Orange Beach in the county’s $60 million building initiative was to spend $6.3 million to add a wing to Orange Beach Elementary School and send the city’s seventh and eighth graders there.
Kennon said he is against taxes in almost all cases but thinks the city doesn’t have a choice if traffic solutions are to be funded.
“You have to ask two questions,” he said. “Is there a traffic problem? And how do we fix it?”
The state will be more likely to participate, Kennon said, if Orange Beach comes to the table with money to pitch in.
“They aren’t going to help us because they can’t,” Kennon said. “How do you get it without raising taxes? Where do you go?”
Pressing traffic needs, Kennon said, are the southern evacuation route, also known as the cross-island connector through the state park, five-laning Canal Road, and another bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway.
The Gulf Shores City Council is expected to mirror the Orange Beach action in its meeting Sept. 25, adding 2 percent to the tax with the starting date also May 1.
In a continuing pattern of preserving neighborhoods, the council denied a zoning change on three parcels east of Zeke’s Marina on Cotton Bayou. Several residents from both sides of Cotton Bayou implored the council to deny the rezoning.
“I’ve lived there over 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Tem Blalock, who lives on the north side of Cotton Bayou, said. “One change that hurt us more than anything was commercializing Cotton Bayou. To commercialize it anymore is not going to benefit anybody. Not the people that live there, not the people that surround the area.
“We’re coming before you tonight to protect us. To protect Cotton Bayou.”
Gulf Shores Power Sports would have built a sales and service facility. Neighbors expressed concerns over more boat traffic and noise from the service shop.
The council was unanimous in denying the zoning change on the parcels.
In other action on Sept. 19:
• The council voted 4-2 to allow Dollar General to build a new location on land north of the city’s medical building. Concerns about impact on traffic on Alabama 161 and the design of the building delayed the approval for months. Council members Joni Blalock and Annette Mitchell voted against allowing variances so the store could locate there.
• Gave approval for a liquor license to Chris and Jennifer Sherrill’s new SALT restaurant at SanRoc Cay. SALT is taking over the former Grazie space. The Sherrills are also renovating the former Fiddlefish space in SanRoc and hope to soon open a breakfast-lunch concept there.
• Ezell and Georgia McClain were recognized for their 70th anniversary at the first of the meetings. Ezell was asked how’d they make it this far. “Keep the lid down and say yes ma’am,” he answered.