Buc-ee's groundbreaking

The City Council helps break ground at the planned Buc-ee's in Auburn

With 2021 coming to a close, here is a look at some of the biggest stories in the Auburn area over the past year. 

Topping the list is the large increase in Auburn's population over the last decade. As of April 1, 2020, the city of Auburn's population was 76,143, according to Census results released in August, a 43 percent increase from the city's population of 53,380 in 2010. The large increase pushed Auburn up to the seventh-largest city in Alabama. Lee County, as a whole, also experienced a sharp increase in population, from 140,247 in 2010 to 174,241 in 2020. 

"I believe this growth is evidence that people love living in Auburn, and we're seeing that more people want to be a part of that," said Auburn Mayor Ron Anders in August. "We're happy to welcome more to the Auburn family and look forward to the future we will build together."

The 2020 Census also showed a substantial increase in Auburn's minority population, which grew from 26.5 to 36.8 percent of the overall population from 2010 to 2020. The largest increase was in the city's Asian population, which rose from 5.7 to 10.6 percent over the past decade.

The large increase in the population will result in a substantial redrawing of the wards in Auburn. The process of redistricting is underway, with the City Council set to consider the new ward map proposed by city staff at Tuesday's City Council meeting. 

The substantial increase in the city's minority population has prompted the NAACP to call for the city to redraw the ward maps to include two majority-minority districts. The NAACP has submitted such a map and its accompanying data to the city for review and consideration.

"Our goal is to redraw the wards to totally reflect the 2020 Census demographics," said Billy Allen, president of the Lee County chapter of the NAACP. 

The City must submit its approved ward map in February for it to be used in the upcoming Municipal Election on August 23.


The never-ending pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic showed no signs of waning in 2021 despite a massive rollout in vaccinations. The year started amid a large peak in Covid-19 hospitalizations, both nationally and locally, last January. 

The hope that the vaccination effort would bring a quick end to the pandemic evaporated late in the summer as another Covid wave crested in the Auburn area, resulting in record numbers of patients hospitalized with Covid at East Alabama Medical Center and EAMC-Lanier. 

As the year progressed, more and more people became eligible for the vaccine. Currently, those ages 5 and older are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine. The vaccine rollout was hampered by widespread disinformation and vaccine hesitancy, resulting in low vaccination rates. 

As of Tuesday, only about 40 percent of Lee County's total population had completed their vaccine series, even as deaths from Covid-19 in the state climbed above 16,000 since the pandemic began in March 2020. The past year proved more deadly in Alabama than 2020, with 9,250 reported Covid-19 deaths in 2021 compared to 7,186 in 2020. 

The continued institution of mask mandates in Auburn City Schools pushed some to openly protest at City Council and Board of Education meetings. The ACS BOE eased the mask mandate in November, making masks optional, but reserved the right to reverse course and mandate masks again if Covid numbers rose in the schools. 


Short-term rental ordinance

After years of holding public-input meetings and work sessions, the city of Auburn finally has its first ordinance regulating short-term rentals. 

In March, the Auburn City Council approved the ordinance, which permits short-term rentals in most districts in the city either as a short-term non-primary rental or a homestay. 

Notably, the ordinance prohibits short-term rentals in traditional single-family neighborhoods zoned Neighborhood Conservation, a prohibition that drew pushback and protest from some residents and helped turn the short-term rental process ugly along the way, both in terms of Council members' interactions during meetings and by the public in emailed communications. 

The short-term rental issue took a further turn toward controversy in June when Councilman Steven Dixon sued his fellow council members, the mayor and city officials over the short-term rental ordinance, saying it subjected him to irreparable injury and violated his constitutional rights. Dixon had recused himself from Council deliberations and votes because he operated a short-term rental out of his home, which resides in a NC-zoned district. 

The individual council members and city staff were removed from the lawsuit in October, but the lawsuit continues, with a summary judgment hearing in Circuit Court set for Feb. 1. 


Buc-ee's is coming to Auburn

Perhaps the biggest news that the Villager broke over the past year was that the massively popular travel center, Buc-ee's, was eyeing a location off of Exit 50. 

The news prompted a wave of excitement throughout the Auburn community and east Alabama, as the popular travel center chain would be building only its fourth location in Alabama.

The arrival of Buc-ee's is expected to make a major impact in the city, with projected annual tax revenue of more than $2 million and the creation of more than 175 good-paying jobs, with a starting pay rate of $15 an hour. 

The City Council cleared the way for Buc-ee's to come to Auburn in May and joined co-founder Beaver Aplin for a ground-breaking ceremony in late October. 

Buc-ee's will invest $45 million into its Auburn location, and will work with the city to allocate $50,000 a year to local nonprofit organizations.

Buc-ee's expects its Auburn location to be open sometime next fall.

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