Leeds steers course to being an Alabama Community of Excellence

Leeds is an old railroad town, and its leaders are careful to preserve and honor that history while welcoming new businesses. (Brittany Faush / Alabama NewsCenter)

By Cary Estes for @Alabama Newscenter

Leeds is a mere 15 miles east of the ever-sprawling Birmingham, and signs of big-city encroachment are steadily popping up along the way. Most notably, Exit 140 off Interstate 20 – also known as “the Leeds exit” – has been transformed in recent years by the addition of the Barber Motorsports Park and Museum, the Outlet Shops of Grand River and the 150,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops.

Yet, all this modern commercial expansion is just a short drive away from the historic buildings of downtown Leeds and the rustic countryside of the Leeds Scenic Byway. The task facing city officials is to have the best of both these contrasting worlds. They want to embrace the economic progress that comes with such growth while maintaining the small-town charm and rural tranquility that attracted many people to Leeds in the first place.

With the help of the Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) program, Leeds has chosen to navigate these waters by adopting a Smart Growth planning approach to development. “This is a part of Jefferson County that still hasn’t really been developed yet, but it’s going to get developed at some point,” says Leeds Mayor David Miller, who has held that position since 2012. “So you can either steer the ship or you can get run over by it. What we’re trying to do is steer the ship and make sure it’s done in a good, positive way.”

New and upcoming

Miller says the city has welcomed 62 new or expanded businesses over the past five years that have created nearly 1,000 jobs. In addition, the city recently reached an agreement for the construction of a 54,000-square-foot gas station/retail store at Exit 140. Yet, Leeds also is determined to preserve its small-town appeal. The city wants to continue to be a place where hundreds of children can gather downtown for Halloween trick-or-treating, and where just a few miles away horses can be seen grazing in the grassy front yard of a country home.

“We want to keep the character of our town, the feelings and the heart and the roots that tie this area together,” says Leeds Historical Commission Vice President Pat Hall, who serves as the city’s ACE coordinator. “That’s what we have to sell to people.”

Leeds officials are accomplishing this with the assistance of ACE, which helps small communities analyze their assets and develop strategies to strengthen their long-term economic success. Miller says the city has made significant strides since being designated as an ACE community in 2013.

“Of all the things we’ve done, becoming part of ACE was probably the most important, and we’ve just built from there,” Miller says. “Just the fact we are an ACE community is a big deal. That plays well with people. I’ve used it as leverage for everything we’ve tried to do. When I recruit for the city and list all the accolades the city has received, number one on the list is always that Leeds is an ACE community.”

The latest recruiting win for Leeds was landing a Buc-ee’s travel store, which is often referred to as the Disney World of gas stations. The Texas-based company plans to build a 100-pump facility on a 15-acre plot off Exit 140 in 2018, creating more than 200 full-time jobs.

“We got word that Buc-ee’s was looking to expand east and wanted something on the I-20 corridor,” Miller says. “So we got in touch with them and said, ‘Come here and see what we have to offer.’

“They said they’ll do $25 million of business in the retail store and pump 18 million gallons of gas in the first year. And the news that they’re coming has led to people looking at the adjacent property for hotels and restaurants. It is a game-changer for us.”

Preserving the city’s character

The city has been doing some construction of its own lately. Leeds has built three new schools, with Leeds High School being named a “School of Distinction” in 2017 by A+ College Ready for its Advanced Placement program. “Having a quality school system has really done a tremendous amount for the city,” Miller says.

The city has four housing subdivisions that are either breaking ground or expanding, and officials are starting a push to create loft apartments in the second floors of some downtown buildings. In addition, construction is scheduled to start by the end of 2018 on a government complex that will occupy a vacant block and will consist of a new city hall, library, board of education offices, water works board, senior center and civic center.

These changes are being conducted under the watchful eye of the Leeds Historical Commission, the Leeds Planning and Zoning Commission and the Leeds Redevelopment Authority. The goal of these organizations is to help the city progress economically without harming the character of the city. “ACE is what made us aware that many of these things are possible,” Hall says.

For example, Hall says ACE facilitated the city’s work with Auburn University that resulted in a master plan for a sidewalk trail through downtown, with Auburn Architectural Landscaping students working alongside Leeds High School students. The Leeds Redevelopment Authority oversaw the project and made grants available to property owners to help improve building façades. As a result, many longtime Leeds businesses such as Earthborn Pottery have a fresh appearance that fits in well with the historic nature of the city.

“There are a lot of new things happening downtown,” says Arthur Phillips, marketing and events liaison for the Leeds Redevelopment Authority. “Things out near I-20 are really strong, and it’s carrying over to downtown. We have several new businesses like Mum & Me Mercantile that have been here only a few months but are already very civic-minded.”

Nature and therapy

While change is taking place downtown, Leeds officials are keeping much of the surrounding landscape in its familiar natural state and taking advantage of the area’s outdoor recreation opportunities. With the help of a $30,000 grant from Alabama Power, the city teamed with Irondale officials and the Freshwater Land Trust to create a canoe launch point on the Cahaba River, part of the developing Cahaba Blueway project.

The natural beauty of the area is especially noticeable along the Leeds Scenic Byway, which is part of the old Ashville-Montevallo Stagecoach Route. As an officially designated Byway, billboards are not permitted alongside the road, and within minutes of leaving downtown you are traveling through scenic countryside.

Along the way you will pass The Red Barn, a therapeutic horse-riding facility serving children with special needs and circumstances, as well as injured military veterans. The facility opened in 2012 and more than 100 people participate each year in the riding programs and camps, with a waiting list of about 160.

Red Barn Program Coordinator Grace Butler says Leeds has been instrumental in the organization’s success. “We could not do what we do without the support we receive from the community,” Butler says. “We have several opportunities to recruit volunteers and others who help grow our agency, whether it’s through the Chamber of Commerce or the schools. This place has a lot of heart behind it, and it’s because of that community support.”

Phillips says that type of civic involvement has been a key force in helping Leeds grow and prosper, while still maintaining the city’s strong historical roots. It is a mindset that has led to the slogan, “Everyone Leeds.”

“Leeds has a lot of pride in its community,” Phillips says. “If you can learn how to foster that, then you can do great things. But it takes people working together, and if something isn’t right, then doing something to fix it. That is what’s happening here.”