Ace of Spaces
February 19, 2018
Photo by Erica Techo.
ACE Team member Lindsay Puckett holds up a worksheet to help collect data at the ACE Assessment Day on Jan. 18. The meeting at Chelsea City Hall served as a chance to get community feedback, hear more about the city’s resources and meet community stakeholders.
Between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census, the city of Chelsea’s population grew by nearly 8,000. From 2010-17, the number of permits for new single family homes grew from 43 to 204.
But one thing that has not changed is the city’s comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 2007. City council member Casey Morris said he hopes participation in the Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) certification program puts the city on the right track.
“Right now, we are operating on a comprehensive plan that was updated in 2007, so by the end of the [ACE] process, the end of the three phases, I think it puts Chelsea on the map in whether it be branding to future retail developers or even just branding to a family that’s looking to relocate into the Shelby County area,” Morris said.
Throughout his campaign in 2016, Morris said a goal was to find an organization that could help Chelsea grow and market itself to businesses and families. He came across Alabama Communities of Excellence and after he was elected, he jumped into the application process.
To be considered for ACE, the city had to complete an extensive application process, Morris said. ACE receives about 30 applications per year, according to ACE associates council member Nisa Miranda, but only accepts about four to six communities per year.
Miranda, the director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development, told community stakeholders and city representatives that one of ACE’s goals is to work with up-and-coming communities in the state, and to help those cities thrive.
“We think a quality community should pay attention to all its resources, understand its assets and apply those wisely,” Miranda said.
As a free service to selected communities, ACE has a team of six individuals, with expertise in backgrounds ranging from economic development to infrastructure to public health, hear from and evaluate communities on six assessment areas. The team then returns with recommendations and assists in the development of a comprehensive plan.
“We will also look for areas where you need to improve. So while we look for the best and want to emphasize the best, we also look for areas where the community can concentrate in to improve, and we’ll point those out too,” Miranda said.
Receiving an ACE certification is a three-phase process that includes an assessment, leadership development and strategic planning, followed by implementation and comprehensive planning.
After its acceptance to the program, Chelsea entered the first phase of the process with an Assessment Day on Jan. 19. A six-person ACE Team panel, including Miranda and five other volunteers, heard from community stakeholders regarding the program’s six assessment topics.
Information from the six presentations will be used along with community input to determine a best plan of action for the city, and the ACE Team will return an Assessment Report on what is done well, what improvements could be made and what a new comprehensive plan might look like.
To further encourage community involvement, the assessment day also included a “working lunch,” which kicked off a discussion of development. Chelsea has followed something that happens with many railroad communities, Miranda said, in that it developed along a corridor and was not dense enough for efficient and economical development.
The point of a comprehensive plan is making plans for future development, she said, and to ensure that development follows a pattern that can save money for infrastructure and appeal to new residents and businesses.
“That is going to shape the personality of your community forever,” Miranda said.
Discussions of dense development, however, sparked concerns about apartments or lofts and potentially losing the rural charm of the city.
James Daniels, a local pastor, said he saw the appeal of establishing a downtown area to give a feel of “Main Street.” Cities with an area that encourages walkability, dining and shopping all in one, he said, end up seeing the benefit.
“It’s the difference of planting deep roots and being a drive-through town,” he said.
Another Chelsea resident, however, said he was concerned about how a town center with lofts — something similar to the structure of Mt Laurel — would lead to a lot of rentals or unoccupied areas. Millennials, the 42-year resident said, don’t tend to buy homes and would not be permanent residents with an investment in the community.
Commissioner Robbie Hayes, also a Chelsea resident, said he sees the city’s millennials as atypical. Rather than rent downtown, they’d rather buy a house with land for their families. They do, however, want places to eat and be active within a walkable area, Hayes said.
Mayor Tony Picklesimer also said most Chelsea residents don’t want to see their city become denser, and they want to maintain the current rural feel of the area. Miranda countered, saying that “dense” is not a descriptor that applies to one town square, or a small area — it means creating neighborhoods with smaller lot sizes, sharing parking lots between businesses or adding a second story to a professional building rather than building out.
Other topics of discussion included:
► Infrastructure and public services: County Manager Alex Dudchock said Chelsea is a city that is always willing to partner with the county. Chelsea has a contract with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement, a partnership with the county for IT services and enters county initiatives such as Compact 2020.
Chelsea benefits from working with the county and contributing to projects, Dudchock said, including on upcoming realignment to the intersection of Shelby County 47 and 39 in front of city hall.
“I can honestly tell you it was on the drawing boards at the county level … when city leadership says, ‘We’re in and we’re in with cash’, what do you think it does for that project? That helps with prioritization and timing,” Dudchock said. Chelsea is willing to put $1.5 million toward the $3 million realignment, according to numbers provided by Dudchock.
► Business and industry: 58 Inc. director Yvonne Murray discussed Chelsea’s steps toward economic development, through its partnership with business recruiting firm Retail Coach, as well as plans the county has to bring in more businesses through 58 Inc. The city’s financial incentives for existing and new businesses benefit development in the area, she said, as does the location on U.S. 280.
“The advantage to Chelsea’s location is they’re on the way to both a high traffic lake and Auburn’s game day,” Murray said.
The city — and retail in the area — is expected to continue to grow, Murray said, citing the fact that 90 percent of residents own their houses.
► Leadership development: Carol Bruser, director of Leadership Shelby County, covered the opportunities for learning more about the county and becoming involved. While several Chelsea residents have gone through Leadership Shelby County, including Compact 2020 director Alan Miller, Morris and other leaders, she encouraged more to take part.
Miranda echoed that encouragement, saying that ACE will look at the number of Chelsea residents involved in Leadership Shelby County. Having consistent involvement and leadership development can lead to a good “succession” of leaders in the city.
► Education/workforce development: Dawn Bone, career technical resource specialist, talked to the ACE Team about Shelby County Schools’ programs and partnerships that encourage workforce development. Through co-op programs, the Career Technical Educational Center and Greater Shelby Chamber of Commerce’s “Keeping it Real” and other career programs, Bone said students are able to leave school with an education and college or career readiness.
► Health care: Brian Massey with St. Vincent’s 119 categorized health care in Chelsea as adequate, diverse and sustainable. Too often, small cities will bring in large-scale health centers and not have the population to support those centers, but Chelsea has not fallen into that pattern, Massey said. The city has an attractive average demographic of healthy, mid-30s, educated and insured residents, as well as medical centers to meet most basic needs.
“It really is a great foundation on which to build,” Massey said.
If anything, improvement could come from opening an urgent care/after-hours health clinic or bringing more specialty rotations into the city.
► Quality of life/ community development: While most speakers were experts in their field, the final presentation came from someone who could be affected by any changes in the city — Chelsea resident Chris Grace. Grace moved to Chelsea 14 years ago, raised three kids who graduated from Chelsea High School and witnessed the city’s growth.
In 2003, there were not many amenities in the city, Grace said, but he has seen a “vibrant” parks and recreation department develop, more opportunities for involvement pop up and new businesses arrive.
“What I find is I drive over the mountain less and less,” Grace said.
While the assessment day took up the majority of Jan. 19, it was just the start of the process. Before Chelsea enters the second phase of ACE, the panel will present its evaluation to the city council. They will also host town halls and receive online input from residents, and that input will help inform the city’s comprehensive plan and thereby future development, said Lindsay Puckett, a panel member and representative of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.
Implementation of the strategic plan is the final phase before receiving an ACE certification, Morris said, but that is not where the work will stop.
“Once we receive the designation, there will actually be more work to do,” he said. “There will be check-ups, as there is in any certification. There’s always things to learn.”