A city on the rise
Opelika is a city in, and the county seat of, Lee County in the east central part of Alabama, and the principal city of the Auburn-Opelika Metropolitan Area. Its history dates back to the late 1830s when its earliest settlers established a community called Lebanon. After the removal of the native Creek (Muscogee) peoples by federal troops in 1836-37, the area became known as “Opelika,” which in the Muskogee language means “large swamp.” Incorporated in 1854, the town, which sat at the junction of several railroad lines, became a regional hub for commerce, especially for the shipment of raw cotton from Southern plantations to the North.
During the Civil War, Opelika was the target of many Union raids on its warehouses and transportation infrastructure. After the war, the town’s population grew rapidly, but it gained a reputation for lawlessness and corrupt governance, sometimes requiring the imposition of martial law to quell rioting and civil unrest. In the early 20th century, Opelika saw the establishment of a growing textile industry, once again making the city an economic powerhouse in the region. Industrialization continued apace over the ensuing years, and by 1970, its manufacturing firms employed nearly 10,000 people.
Today, Opelika has a population of approximately 30,000, and over the last few decades, the city has experienced revitalization in many segments of its economy, including commercial, residential, and industrial activity, resulting in many accolades for its ability to create jobs. In 2015, Forbes Magazine ranked the Auburn-Opelika metro area as the seventh best small city for jobs in the country; in 2016, it was ranked the sixth-best performing small city in the Milken Institute’s 2016 Best-Performing Small Cities: Where America’s Jobs are Created and Sustained report for the third year in a row, and up four spots from the previous year’s 10th-place ranking.
“Since 2005, we’ve created 3,821 jobs and $1,465,000,000 worth of capital investment,” reports Lori Huguley, CEcD, Opelika’s Director of Economic Development. “That is strictly on the industrial/manufacturing side, and not inclusive of all the retail development that has come into the area since 2005. In 2019, we were very fortunate that we were able to announce the creation of 423 new jobs and also a capital investment of $127.6 million.”
“New jobs also bring new residents to Opelika,” adds Community Relations Officer, Leigh Krehling. “New home construction in our community is at an all-time high. Last year we permitted more than 278 new homes and with more than 380 single family lots ready for homes. There are another 386 lots in active development, and an additional 862 apartment units and 168 townhouses planned in 2020.”
The largest employer in the Auburn-Opelika area is Auburn University, with over 5,300 full-time workers; the largest employer in Opelika is the East Alabama Medical Center, with a staff of over 3,000. Other major employers include the Mando America Corporation, a supplier of brakes and steering components to Tier One automotive manufacturers, and Hanwha another Tier One supplier of plastic injection molded parts. “We’re fortunate to have the automotive suppliers because of our location between the Kia manufacturing plant in Georgia, which is 20 minutes away, and the Hyundai manufacturing plant in Montgomery, which is an hour away,” Huguley notes.
Other companies in Opelika include Baxter International Inc., previously known as Gambro Renal Products, a manufacturer of dialyzers for kidney dialysis; Pharmavite, a global leader and manufacturer of Nature Made dietary supplements; and Golden State Foods Corp., one of the largest diversified suppliers to the quick-service restaurant and retail industries.
“When Gambro came here in 2006, they made the largest capital investment in the history of Lee County – $165 million,” says Mayor Gary Fuller. “It’s a clean room environment and the highest paying manufacturing jobs in the metro. Then Baxter purchased them, and two years ago, they completed a $252 million expansion. They hired 200 more people at those high-paying jobs and now employ a total of just over 500. Pharmavite and Golden State Foods both had a presence in California, so for both of them, this was another location on the east coast, and they both chose Opelika. Pharmavite makes Nature Made-branded vitamins, minerals, and supplements; Golden State Foods produces hamburger patties, primarily for McDonalds, as well as beef for Nestlé manufacturing facilities. It’s a huge, huge operation.”
Several of Opelika’s companies reside in the city’s Northeast Opelika Industrial Park, a 2,400-acre development, located along the western boundary of Interstate 85 – one hour from Montgomery, and less than one hour and fifteen minutes from Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. “We have a very heavy utility structure in place there,” says Huguley. “We have the electric providers (Tallapoosa River Electric Cooperative and Alabama Power Company); the natural gas (Alagasco and Southeast Gas); and all the water you could ever need (Opelika Utilities). Some communities have issues with water capacity; that is not a problem for us. We also have a very strong communications infrastructure (Point Broadband, and AT&T). And we still have room for development there; we have over 1,600 acres still available including a 500-acre contiguous parcel available, which could be potentially rail-served, as well.”
Opelika’s newest location for companies that are focused on emerging and innovative technologies will be the Opelika Innovation and Technology Park, to be located along US Highway 280. The new 105-acre Park is in a federally-designated Opportunity Zone, which offers industries cheaper build-to-suit leasing, stronger federal, state, and local incentives, and unique tax planning opportunities. Businesses will have easy access to East Alabama Medical Center, the Tiger Town shopping mall, downtown Opelika, Auburn University, and Southern Union State Community College.
Regarding Southern Union, Krehling reports that Opelika City Schools system has partnered with the community college to create several programs for its high school seniors who would rather go straight into the workforce than attend a four-year college. “They go out and have hands-on, day-to-day work with our industries,” she says. “It’s another way to help develop that talent pipeline for all the companies that we’ve recruited to the area, and it also makes students aware of what opportunities there are,” Huguley adds. “So, it’s gratifying to see them participate in those tours of our industries; they’re fully engaged and we feel that this program is generating a lot of interest in going into jobs in our manufacturing companies, while also participating at Southern Union Community College to seek some of those skills that they’ll need to be successful at those jobs. Also, with the proximity of Auburn University, Southern Union has been a great partner as a feeder school. We have a lot of kids that will start at Southern Union and then transfer over to Auburn. So, I can’t say enough about the relationship that we have with Southern Union Community College and what it means to our area.”
Krehling adds that the Opelika City Schools system, itself, also invests in career tech programs for its students: “They have everything from EMT, to nursing, to horticulture, 3D printing, engineering – all of these tracks that the kids can determine in ninth grade that they have an interest in, and then follow through to see if it’s something they really want to do for their career path when they go to college. The school is instrumental in helping the kids find their way, early, because it’s such a competitive environment now. We are extremely fortunate.”
Joey Motley is Opelika’s City Administrator. He reports on the city’s recent initiative regarding its adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. “The city has done a self-evaluation of our ADA,” he begins. “We’ve gone through every building, we’ve walked every sidewalk, looked at every road intersection, all our parks, everything that we have control over, and we have determined what needs to be fixed and we assigned a dollar value to it. It’s probably in the $5 million range, once we get through. But we’re fixing all the things I mentioned and making everything fully-compliant. There are some things that we could do to get by, but we’re trying to fix it right and forever, because it’s the right thing to do.
“So, we’re repairing and replacing sidewalks; we’re replacing intersections downtown; we’re fixing bathrooms. One great example: we have a SportsPlex building that’s state-of-the-art and only ten years old. But, when we did the assessment, because of some of the law changes and things that were overlooked, we’re having to go in make some adjustments in the bathrooms there. Again, we don’t have to do some of these things, but we want to be right on everything we do according to the letter of the law. So, we feel real good about that project. We hope to have it completed within a three-to four-year period, and we think we’re on track to do that.”
“The other thing that I’d like to talk about is our Opelika Neighborhood Mobile Health Clinic,” Motley continues. “We had a solution to a problem brought to us through the Casey Foundation and a local group that’s working with them that we engaged to run what we call our Community of Hope. It’s all about improving the quality of life here in Opelika. This mobile health clinic is an old transit bus that was donated to us. We’re having it converted and we’re within a few months of launching. We had a fundraiser and Opelika is a very generous city; we had over $225,000 in donations given to us – from as much as $60,000 from one group, to $2 from one lady, and everything in between. The city is going to provide the vehicle, the driver, and the facilities, and we’re going to partner with the hospital – they’re going to provide all the healthcare. We think this is going to be huge. We’re very excited about it because it’s a way to help a lot of people in the underserved sections of the city.”
The SportsPlex mentioned by Motley is the Opelika SportsPlex and Aquatics Center, which houses five full regulation soccer fields, including one championship field with two concession stands and two sets of bathrooms. It is home to the Opelika Parks and Recreation Spring and Fall Soccer programs, the Opelika Crush Soccer Team, and the Opelika City Schools soccer teams. “About six months ago, we opened a pickleball stadium at the SportsPlex,” Fuller reports. Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, and because it is played on a smaller court and uses a slower moving plastic ball with holes, pickleball can accommodate players of all ages and skill levels. Although it is easy to learn, pickleball can develop into a fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players. “We have 12 covered courts and it’s a smash hit; it’s the hottest sport in America,” Fuller enthuses. “We’ll be hosting tournaments there. It brings folks to Opelika; they stay in our hotels and they eat in our restaurants.”
“Speaking of events, several years ago, Golf Digest Magazine did survey of all 334 metropolitan area in the United States for golf,” Fuller adds, in conclusion. “And they ranked Opelika/Auburn as Number 1 for golf; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina came in second. We have a bunch of golf courses and the crown jewel is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Grand National in Opelika. It’s 54 holes and located near the Marriott Resort and Spa, which is big hotel and conference center. We have hosted numerous events there including the PGA Barbasol Open, the LGPA, and the NCAA Men’s Tournament. Folks who like to play golf love visiting Opelika.”
All in all, Opelika, Alabama presents unparalleled opportunities for business, commercial, retail, and industrial development, as well as an exceptional quality of life. It’s truly a city on the rise.
The Power of Partnership
As President of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce, Pam Powers-Smith is well aware of the important role that synergy and a strong relationship between a city and its Chamber of Commerce plays in the growth and success of a community. In her words, “We certainly have a lot to brag about when it comes to the partnership we have with the City of Opelika. The Chamber is fortunate to have the support of not only the Mayor and his office but all city departments. They are involved with our businesses and genuinely care for the overall health of our business community, and I feel that our members can sense this. The city constantly works with us on everything from a celebratory ribbon cutting ceremony to solving special problems for new members opening new stores. The environment here is top notch, and we are thankful.
The healthy business community here in Opelika is also fueled by the positive relationships the city has not only with the Chamber of Commerce but all other related organizations and entities. It takes a village to run a great village.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Opelika, Alabama
WHAT: A city of 30,000
WHERE: Lee County, in the east central part of the state