Northern Beltline: The St. Clair Effect

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St. Clair County is now one of the fastest growing counties in Alabama. Census figures show the county’s population grew by 29 percent from 2000 to 2010. Local leaders believe the nearby Northern Beltline will fuel even more growth. That’s the fifty-two mile stretch of highway that will run through northern Jefferson County. Many county leaders support the project. However, those leaders might have to wait for the highway’s full impact.

Springville mayor William Isley has seen lots of changes in his town over the last few years.

‘Quite a bit of retail growth in Springville over the last five years. We have a new Wal-Mart and several other business.’

Isley says the growth is driven by families moving out of suburban communities in eastern Jefferson County-like Trussville and Center Point. Interstate 59 passes close to Springville, while Interstate 20 cuts through the southern part of the county. Both provide access to downtown Birmingham. And that’s a major reason for St. Clair’s explosive growth, says Samford University business professor Franz Lohrke.

‘Given the two interstates through there, that has had some impact. Again, a lot of those people work downtown. And it has allowed the ability to commute in. Given those two feeder lines and the fact that they’ve improved them and expanded them, that’s helped the county grow.’

Beltine backers say the highway will generate more than 2 billion dollars a year in economic development during the construction phase, along with thousands of construction-related jobs. Lohrke says a long-term impact on communities like Springville is uncertain. He points to Interstate 459 as an example. The southern loop through Jefferson County was finished in 1984, but Lohrke says the towns along 459 are just now seeing an economic benefit.

‘If you look at the population patterns and the business patterns right now. You know, this is something that’s going to take a while for it to build out. Obviously, there will be intermediate impacts economically, but a lot of them are probably a long way off.’

So, there’s the short term boost from building the Northern Beltline. But attracting businesses to communities on or near the highway? That could take a while. There’s also another possible outcome for places like Springville and St. Clair County.

Russell Killen is the mayor of Knightdale, North Carolina. It was once a sleepy small town, now it’s a fast-growing suburb of Raleigh, the state capitol. In 2007, the state built a highway similar to the Northern Beltine, and it passes close to town. Killen says, so far, the highway’s biggest economic impact on Knightdale is cutting down on commute times to job centers in other parts of the metro area. Killen says the economic argument for his new highway was less about creating jobs than helping people get to jobs that already exist.

‘We had a good, vibrant, growing economy. The issue was how to get people to the jobs centers we already had. We had some very significant traffic issues that 540 relieved and kind of opened up a whole new side of Wake County and our area.’

The St. Clair County Commission and several towns have passed resolutions in favor of the Northern Beltline. Mayor Isley believes the highway would mean more growth for the already fast growing area.

‘I believe you’ll see more folks traveling this way, more folks visiting Springville because of that.’

More folks means more dollars for Springville businesses, but the true economic effect of the Northern Beltline on St. Clair County is many years down the road.