When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in full force midway through March of 2020, the novel outbreak of the deadly coronavirus threw most everything in society into a tailspin.
Hospitals went into emergency mode, restricting visitation while desperately trying to save as many as possible and learning about the novel disease; schools were abruptly shuttered and forced to take their classes online; and all but essential workers were told to pack up their offices and head home for remote work.
Many processes were impacted, too, including the 2020 Census, which was set to begin its count on April 1, just weeks after the pandemic brought normal life to a standstill. With the pandemic abruptly sending Auburn University students home, City officials worried that the population for Lee County would be woefully undercounted and frequently made pleas to students and residents alike to make sure they responded to the Census.
The City expressed similar concerns, and disputed the official results, when the 2010 Census population came back well below the estimates of the Auburn Interactive Growth Model.
That worry of a woeful undercount reoccurring in 2020 never came to fruition, as the 2020 Census put Auburn's population as of April 1, 2020 at 76,143, a roughly 43 percent increase over the last decade.
"I was surprised, mainly because I thought we would be undercounted again," said Mayor Ron Anders, in an interview last week with The Villager. "We felt confident we were going to be over 70,000 because everybody has seen the growth in this town. If you have been here the last 10, 15, 20 years, you know that there are more houses in this community; there are more cars in this community; and you've seen there are more schools in this community; there are more fire stations in this community; there's more places to work in this community. We've all seen that.
"The percentage of growth was tremendous compared to other communities, and the sheer volume of people. The great thing, and what I want to make clear to our citizens, is we go about doing the business of the City to try to make Auburn the best place it can be for people to live, work and do life here. If, because we're doing that, that attracts folks and businesses to our community, then so be it. We're not doing anything to overstimulate the growth of this community. We're just simply trying to make Auburn the best city it could possibly be, and obviously that's been attractive to a lot of people over the last decade."
The fast growth in Auburn over the last decade has also shone the spotlight on the community and raised its stature in the state of Alabama. During that time, the City joined the Big 10 Mayors, which brings together the mayors of the 10 largest cities in Alabama to discuss pressing topics that span their communities.
Anders said he was honored to be part of the group when he joined and that the City has since seen its impact in the state grow.
"It's obvious to me that they see Auburn as a really unique place that garners respect and attention in this state," said Anders. "As I have been able to meet different people around the state of Alabama, it's really obvious that they see Auburn as a star in this state. We are in a different position than the Auburn I grew up in in the '60s, '70s and '80s. We are a major player in the state of Alabama; we have influence in the state of Alabama; and we're really doing some great things that the state of Alabama likes to talk about, particularly from an economic development standpoint.
"Auburn is viewed differently than it used to be viewed, and I believe, by and large, that's a good thing for our citizens."
Both challenges and opportunities come with growth, said Anders, who noted different grants that the city might now be eligible for as one benefit.
"We can be viewed as candidates for different opportunities that we used to not be a candidate for," he said. "It's still incumbent upon the leadership of the city to make good decisions in the best interest of all our citizens. Just because we have passed a threshold of population doesn't mean that everything that's maybe available to us now is what we should do. We've got to be very picky about what are those things or areas that we want to play in now. Just because you're allowed to doesn't mean you need to."
At its meeting on June 1, the City Council approved a one-year contract for $108,000 plus expenses with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, LLP, to provide professional governmental affairs representation at the federal level for the city. Auburn previously held contracts with the company from 2004 to 2010 to help the city identify and secure federal funding, according to a memo from City Manager Megan McGowen Crouch to the Council that was included in meeting materials. Crouch noted that the firm helped the City secure funding for Exit 50 during that time frame.
Changes in the process for seeking federal funding changed and the City did not extend the contract. The process recently changed again, according to Crouch's memo.
"In 2021, the process for seeking federal funding has again changed in a way that more actively involves congress, appropriations submissions and the need to more actively and competitively identify, apply for and advocate for funding opportunities," the memo states.
The City enlisted the help of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings after becoming aware of application deadlines for federal funding requests in April.
"In the longer term, additional application opportunities and deadlines are approaching," said Crouch in the memo, before recommending approval of the contract "to ensure that we are able to identify and seek federal funding opportunities for projects benefiting Auburn citizens ... ."
"We did that because now the types of monies, the types of resources we're going to need are greater than they used to be," said Anders. "And the place to go find those resources is in Washington. To be awarded those types of grants, you've got to have a lobbyist. You've got to have an advocate that's up there for you all the time. We're here in Auburn. We need somebody that's focused on being us in Washington."
The firm and City are currently working to secure federal funds that will help build an addition to the industrial park, said Anders.
Anders credited former Mayor Jan Dempsey, former City Manager Doug Watson and Economic Development Director Phillip Dunlap with helping craft a change in direction in the City in the '80s that impacted Auburn's growth going forward, citing two "fundamental decisions" — diversifying the job base, which was then dominated by Auburn University, and investing in the city's school system.
"I believe that fundamental determination where there was a fork in the road, and they decided to go right instead of left, and I don't mean that politically," said Anders. "Auburn has been pushing ahead towards its future ever since then."