FOLEY – New streets, an expanded wildlife preserve, new areas coming into the city and continued growth are some of the many highlights of 2023 in Foley, Mayor Ralph Hellmich said.

In his State of the City address, Hellmich said Foley has continued to grow. He said Foley has a population of about 25,000 making it the second largest city in Baldwin County. Foley also has the fastest growth rate in the area.

He said that while change is a concern for some residents, meeting the challenges of growth is preferable to dealing with a shrinking population and economy.

“There’s a lot of angst out there, not just in Foley, but all over Baldwin, that we’re growing too fast,” Hellmich said. “I say that’s a pleasant problem to have. I would rather be growing too fast than not growing at all.”

To accommodate that growth, the city is adding to its services. Foley is increasing its staffing and equipment for emergency services. The city added 10 new police officer positions in the last year as well as adding new technology and equipment.

In December, Foley broke ground to start construction of a new Public Works campus which will provide updated space for the department’s 78 employees and a new mechanic shop to service the city’s more than 400 vehicles. The facility is scheduled to open in 2024.

The city is also adding to the Graham Creek Nature Preserve, which is already the largest municipal nature reserve in Alabama, Hellmich said. The mayor said grants from the federal Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, known as GOMESA, will allow the city to more than double the size of the preserve. 

 “We’re in the process with GOMESA grants that we have accumulated of adding 900 more acres which will take us to roughly 1,600 acres plus or minus that will make it humongous, from Wolf Bay all the way to the Beach Express,” Hellmich said.

He said additional funding through the federal Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast Act, known as RESTORE, will allow the city to buy more land to add to the center.

The city also expanded other recreational services in 2023.

Foley opened the renovated Sara Thompson Kids Park in May. The park was rebuilt at a cost of $1.2 million.

The city also opened its first small downtown “pocket park,” on Pine Street earlier this year. 

Foley is also making improvements in other parks, including adding new lights, restrooms and other amenities to recreational facilities.

The city entered into an agreement with the Baldwin County Board of Education to use some school athletic fields for municipal leagues. In exchange, the city will improve the fields with lights and other amenities.

“We are taking over some sports fields and upgrading them,” Hellmich said. “It’s a great  partnership. We get to use something that we need and they get improvements to their fields.”

The city is also working with the school system on other projects, such as the Foley Sister Cities program in which students from Foley will visit Foley’s sister city of Hennef, Germany in 2024 and German students will visit Foley after that.

Foley acquired the former National Guard armory in 2023. The city received the facility in exchange for donating property to the National Guard for a new armory that was built near the Foley Beach Express.

Hellmich said the city will renovate the old armory for municipal use.

This will allow us to have an indoor recreation area for some of our leagues that we did not have a home for. So we’re converting it to that and some administrative and rec offices,” Hellmich said. “It’s really a unique building right there behind City Hall that will allow us a lot of space.”

Another building project planned to start in 2024 is the new library that will be constructed next to the Foley Dog Park off Orange Avenue. Hellmich said the project will start in early 2024 and be completed in 2025.

“Our current library is bursting at the seams and needs to be upgraded. We should have it finished by ‘25,” he said.

Another project is the expansion of the Foley Civic Center. Hellmich said the current center is too small to meet city needs. Addressing the audience from the Civic Center stage, he pointed out that the facility would be extended to the north.

“What we’re talking about is expanding this, moving the stage back about 80 feet to give us additional space needed for a city our size,” Hellmich said. “We’re working on that in order to improve our city facility.”

Other improvements made in 2023 and planned for 2024 include road and other infrastructure additions.

The city completed the extension of North Pecan Street in 2023. Foley also completed work to install new traffic signals and other improvements at the intersection of Juniper Street and Baldwin County 20.

Hellmich said most of the work to extend Juniper Street to Alabama 59 is also complete. The final phase of that project, to install traffic signals and other improvements at the Alabama 59 intersection is scheduled to be completed and the extended road opened in early 2024.

He said other projects completed in 2023 included drainage improvements on the Bon Secour River basin. Crews removed sediment and debris, including a beaver dam, to reduce flooding in the area.

“The Bon Secour River project is something I’m very proud of that our council funded that was not in the budget,” Hellmich said. “One of the things that we noticed was that we were getting a lot of flooding that was not routine on our major rivers. There was a gap between the county and the state and the city in regards to the Bon Secour and the Magnolia River. Our council has funded four projects where we have cleaned the stream to where it allows it to flow.”

Hellmich said the City Council also budgeted $1 million for sidewalk projects to supplement state funding.

“We also have one that we’re working on that will tie in the Mel Roberts Park on Cedar Street north to Peachtree and all the way to Pecan Street,” Hellmich said.

Other walkways built or planned by the city include sidewalks near Mathis Elementary School, on Koniar Way, Stabler Avenue and on Pride Boulevard.

The mayor said another major accomplishment in 2023 was the annexation of the remainder of the Mills community. Mills voters approved annexation in a referendum.

“That area was divided by annexation back in the ‘90s and it was a challenge to get that community reunited,” Hellmich said. “We worked with a local group made up of churches and folks from not only Foley, but people who are active all over South Baldwin in order to convince folks that you need to be part of Foley and they voted overwhelmingly to come into Foley because they realized it was better for them to be part of us.”

The mayor said Foley is preparing for growth beyond 2024. The city is developing a strategic plan to be used in upcoming years. As part of the plan, a survey is being conducted to ask residents what they would like to see in Foley in the future.

“What do you want to look like or what do you feel is important, from 25 to 30? So when we complete this strategic plan, as we go through those next four or five years, no matter who’s sitting at the table, we have a direction that will keep us being the greatest little community that we have here in South Baldwin,” Hellmich said.