Referendum would help Eldridge develop I-22 exit

Constitutional amendment vote would let school board market land

ELDRIDGE — State Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, is working to set up a referendum to allow about 300 acres of school indemnity lands around the Eldridge exit off Interstate 22 to be managed and sold by the Walker County Board of Education for commercial or industrial development. Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said Friday he is working with Wadsworth on the project, saying it is a “win-win situation” for the area, a phrase Wadsworth and municipal leaders also used repeatedly. “You don’t have many projects that are absolutely perfect for a small town,” Wadsworth said. “This is one where you have a small town that has an opportunity to really grow and develop.”  He said the U.S. Interstate 22 intersection with Highway 13, also known as the Natural Bridge intersection, would be the focal point of the proposal. Wadsworth said he has met with David Knight, the executive director of the Walker County Industrial Development Authority, as well as Walker County Superintendent of Education Jason Adkins and Eldridge city officials, a few months ago. He said state Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, is also in favor of the idea. Eldridge Mayor Bobbie Jean Dodd — whose municipality has a population of 127 people — said Friday all the officials involved feel very positive and supportive about the idea, which she credited to Wadsworth. “We’re hoping some businesses will go in,” said Dodd, who has been mayor since 1991. Asked if that would improve the town’s tax base, Dodd said, “Our tax base is Barbara Ann’s,” referring to a local business on Highway 13. The proposal “would help the town tremendously.”  Councilwomen Martha Tittle said, “For the future of our community, it would mean so much. If we get that business, I feel like we’re going to have growth. It’s going to help the Walker County Board of Education. It’s going to help us. It’s just a win-win situation.”  Wadsworth said the project has been in the works for about six months. “We are going to do a local bill,” by way of a local constitutional amendment. “It will have to be voted on by the people,” Wadsworth said. “All the land that is surrounding the Eldridge exit is what they classify as school indemnity property. Normally you look at 16th Section property, which is property set aside for public education.” When 16th Section land that is not usable for school purposes, they move that property over” and classify it as school indemnity property. Sometimes land is swapped out and the land that can’t be used is given that classification, which officials think is the case in Eldridge. Both type of property are managed through the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. About 300 acres surround four corners the intersection, all of which is school indemnity property that could not be developed because it is managed by the state, Wadsworth said. (Edward F. Poolos, the deputy commissioner of Conservation, who lives in Jasper, could not be reached for comment by text Friday.) Wadsworth said, “What I came up with was what I did in Winston County (last year). We had (about 300 acres of) lake property in Winston County,” all of which was 16th Section property that was isolated. “We got it passed to allow the board of education to manage it and to put a public boat launch in there,” he said. A similar project was also handled in Cullman County about two years ago. The Eldridge plan would allow 16th Section or school indemnity property in the town limits of Eldridge — which involves all the property on the interstate exit — to be managed by the Walker County school board. The school board, with the help of the industrial development authority, would then be allowed to develop the property. “Any proceeds from the sale of the property would be put in a trust and could not be used for anything, but the (interest) income that is earned off it could be used for public education,” Wadsworth said. Once the property is developed for items like hotels or truck stops, any of the county’s 2 percent sales tax would go to help schools, as revenue from that tax normally does, he said.

Since Eldridge annexed that intersection into the city limits about a decade ago, with the help of then-Sen. Curt Lee, R-Jasper, the municipality would also benefit from sales tax from development that springs from that site. The town also has a 2-cent sales tax. It does not currently having a lodging tax, although one could be added if a hotel is possible. “Currently, there is no revenue being generated on that property,” Councilman Denver Jones said, adding that the town benefits without having to spend a large amount of money, such as in a matching grant. “This is the growth of Eldridge,” he said. “If Eldridge is ever going to grow, this will allow Eldridge to have a sales tax base based on the development around that interstate and it will help the Walker County Schools, because it will generate the 2-cent sales tax on anything that is done, and the income from any sale of that property will be used for public education also. It is a win-win for everybody.” Otherwise, he said, no one would ever develop the property. As for what type of development could go at that area, Wadsworth said it could be truck stops, hotels, convenience stores and other development. “It’s wide open,” he said. Since the land is not useable for schools, Wadsworth was asked if the land can be realistically developed. “It can,” he said. “It is relatively level land, and it can be under the local bill be used for anything other than a school, as long as the funds from the sale of (the land) are kept in a trust’ where it can be use in the future for public education. Wadsworth said voters throughout Walker County would have to vote on the matter at the polls. The proposal will not become law unless county voters approve the plan, he said. He noted as a local constitutional amendment, it is not advertised locally in advance of passage in the Legislature. Once passed by the Legislature, the state will then advertise it in advance of the referendum. It is not certain when it could be possibly put on the ballot this year if it passes the Legislature, but he said the state will schedule it during one of the other election dates already set on this year’s calendar. He said without the project, Eldridge wouldn’t have the financial backing to help develop the property, which is why he approached Knight and the authority. “They are on board with this. What they can do is they can help with the guidance,” he said. All parties involved are on board. Wadsworth noted three large parcels on the north end of the intersection which are school indemnity lands, as are a large parcel on the southeast corner and a small parcel on the southwest corner. If the school board is allowed to manage the property, it would not receive a deed but it would get a letter from Conservation noting it had permission to manage the school indemnity property at the exit, as well as information on easements and rights-of-way that affect title to the property. If property is sold to a developer, the businessman would get a deed to the property, Wadsworth said. “I am honestly really proud of Eldridge for the work they did to put this together. They had to do some research for us to make sure it was in the city limits,” he said. He noted it would likely take several years to develop the property, adding one of his goals is to help places like Eldridge and Carbon Hill being connected and ready for the interstate, as I-22 will be a lifeblood for those communities. Wadsworth is also working on more interstate lighting for Carbon Hill. Knight said Friday from what he understands of the proposal and the land involved, the intersection has “fairly decent potential for commercial development” and for helping the parties concerned. On Friday, Adkins said by text, “I am extremely excited about it, quite frankly. I was involved with this project from its onset. I am appreciative of Mr. Wadsworth’s efforts. I have always been extremely impressed with the foresight and industriousness of the people of Eldridge. That is why I worked so hard alongside the mayor, council and Marcus O’Mary to help the community obtain ownership of Eldridge School, particularly after the all the hard work they put into maintaining it. I am excited to be a small part of this opportunity for Eldridge and the Walker County Board of Education.”