By Hannah Lester
Despite a hard year, Opelika is still thriving after 2020. Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller touted that fact in his seventh annual Mayoral Address last Friday.
“2020 was a challenging [year] that stretched our comfort zones, tested our faith, forced us to find creative ways to live, worship, work and play,” Fuller said.
The city always has plans in place for the year — for the budgets, for projects — but a global pandemic threw a wrench in things.
“When COVID hit us, we did what most communities did, we asked our department heads to spend less, cut out travel and focus on necessities, and they did that,” Fuller said.
Despite the pandemic, Opelika had a surplus of revenue in 2020. The city was expected to bring in $128.7 million in taxes, but instead saw $133 million.
Additionally, Fuller said Opelika has brought in 1.15 billion in capital investments over the last 10 years, and created 2,380 jobs – 183 this year.
“Last year, I, along with the city council and the Opelika Industrial Development Authority, were able to announce the creation of 183 new jobs with an additional investment of 74.2 million dollars,” he said. “These jobs and investment come from existing industries.”
Coupled with capital investment, the city also annexed 1,300 acres of land in 2020, including the property of the potential Opelika quarry, which was fought by both the city and residents in the county.
Institutions like the Opelika Parks and Rec and Lewis Cooper Jr. Memorial Library were not deterred by social-distancing and quarantines either, Fuller said.
Opelika Parks and Rec was able to complete renovation on the Covington Rec Center, install a new playground in town, add restrooms at two parks and build a fence at Ray Ward Park.
“Parks and Rec also created a buzz in tourism industry by hosting several tournaments,” Fuller said. “Rumble on the Rails with 50 teams, Paddles at the Plex with 300 plus participants, two USA swim meets and the sixth annual Frostbite Open with 95 players in eight states.”
The Lewis Cooper Jr. Memorial Library continued to provide services to residents, even as preparing for the opening of their new building this upcoming fall.
“Rosanna McGinnis and her staff had to pivot but they did so and were able to provide new digital services to their patrons through curbside checkout, e-book, e-audio book … virtual story time and programs for patrons young and old,” Fuller said.
As the places in Opelika adapted and grew, so did the people. Not only does Opelika have a new police chief and fire chief, but four new city council members too, Fuller said.
And although he wanted to highlight what Opelika has accomplished in the past, the city is also looking to its future, Fuller said.
“We live in an ever-changing world,” he added. “What works now, may not always work. We have to be intentional about decisions, about plans and about initiatives that we put in place today. We have to continue to look at innovative ways to improve the processes that help citizens better engage and communicate with each other.”
Ultimately, a long-range plan is in the works for the city, Fuller said, which he hopes will include help from citizens.
The city has already used diversity and inclusion listening sessions, leadership trainings and the Opelika Police Department’s ambassador program to create plans for moving forward.