Officials: Rapid Limestone growth result of jobs, lifestyle, schools

May 17—ATHENS — Limestone County adds about 10 people daily, and economic development officials say people are moving in because of the area's job growth, lifestyle and educational opportunities.

It's "because of the great quality of life we have, that quality of place that we can promote," Bethany Shockney, Limestone County Economic Development Association president and CEO, said last week during the LCEDA annual meeting.

She said newcomers are also attracted to the community by the quality of its "public high schools, with us being a safe place to live, with us being the best place to retire (and) best place for young professionals."

U.S. News & World Report's rankings of the Best Places to Live for 2023-24 has the Huntsville metropolitan statistical area, which includes Limestone County, ranked No. 2 behind Green Bay, Wisconsin.

"When you have a source like that identify you as a hot spot, people are going to take notice," Shockney said. "They'll look at our demographics and look at our quality of living and they're going to decide if our area fits them better than living in a more urban area like Huntsville. We're a little more rural and the cost of living is lower."

Limestone County had the highest percentage population growth in the state at 3.3% from July 1, 2021, to July 1, 2022, adding 3,519 people for a total estimated population of 110,900, according to Census Bureau estimates. The increase from April 2020 to last July was 7,337, a 7.1% increase representing about 10 additional residents daily — including births and transplants.

Pammie Jimmar, Athens-Limestone Chamber of Commerce president, said the Huntsville metropolitan area receiving the accolade of being the best place to live includes Athens and Limestone County.

"So, we're experiencing all that growth that you see down (U.S.) 72 and Madison and Huntsville, that includes us," she said. "That doesn't surprise me that there are 10 people moving into our county every day."

Jimmar said the population growth spurs business development.

"When we're seeing growth around our county to mirror all the growth with the new restaurants and new businesses popping up on a daily basis, everything is catching up to the growth in our community," she said.

"Investors and people want to be in a city that is growing, in a city that is thriving, that means that there are jobs here, that means that the livability component is growing here. People want to be a part of that."

People move to Limestone County from all over the country, Shockney said.

"There are a lot of people moving from surrounding counties or surrounding states, but there are many people moving from the West Coast and the East Coast, northeast area," she said. "It's just a good place to live but the jobs, ultimately, are what is causing them to move here."

In the last year, the county saw $80 million in capital investments from new and expanding industries and 200 new industrial jobs as a result.

"We have Interstate 65 running right through Limestone County so coming south we're the gateway to Alabama," Shockney said. "These distribution companies, they need quick access to other parts of the country, and you can get that right there in Limestone County."

Shockney said doing business in the county is relatively cost effective and the county is business friendly.

Jimmar said industries may be coming to Limestone County because the county has available land.

"And they're able to pull from a skilled labor force in our area also," she said. "That makes it easier for companies to want to come to our area."

The unemployment rate in Athens and Limestone County is 1.6%, which is lower than the statewide 2.3% rate. Shockney said there are a lot of job choices and opportunities within the county and its surrounding areas.

"We have really well-paying jobs whether you're looking at blue collar or white collar; we have a tremendous number of jobs," she said. "We still have several hundred jobs in manufacturing that need to be filled, hundreds in the white collar jobs with the government contractors and the FBI in Huntsville. Not to mention the jobs that are available in retail and food service."

Jimmar said having Calhoun Community College, Athens State University and the University of North Alabama locally helps, too.

"If you've got someone who's working at a manufacturing company and there is room for them to move up or to get a promotion, but they have to be skillfully trained in the area to take a step up, we've got the surrounding universities and community college to be able to support that," she said. "That would make it easier for people to have choices and to have skills for choices in employment."

The average price of homes in the county jumped $90,000 in two years from 2020 to 2022. The cost rose from $258,000 to $348,000 and Shockney said she sees this as a positive.

"That's great for people that own homes," she said. "That increases their value, it increases their equity which makes that stronger for our overall economy."

Jimmar said the cost of local housing makes a difference.

"When we compare the housing to other parts of the United States, ... our home prices are moderate compared to what we're seeing across the country," she said.

In 2020, there were 2,571 homes sold in the county with 657 of them being in Athens. In 2021, there were 2,685 homes sold in the county with 781 being in Athens. In 2022, there were 2,469 homes sold in the county with 735 being in Athens.

The LCEDA meeting was held at the Alabama Veterans Museum & Archives in Athens.

— or 256-340-2460.