If you need a recipe for how to successfully blend beauty and business, take a look at Oxford, Alabama.
“Oxford is a special place,” said Oxford Mayor Alton Craft. “It’s my home, but it’s also 18 miles long on the interstate. I don’t know how many cities are 18 miles long on anything. Those kinds of things and a mixture of the great people are what I always sell.”
Oxford, which straddles Interstate 20 about halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta, has grown more than 40% in the past 20 years, now boasting a population of more than 21,000. It was founded in 1852 along Choccolocco Creek where farmers could wade their cattle from one side of the creek to the other.
“After traveling across the country, this is a very special place to live,” said Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge. “The quality of life here is extremely good. Low cost of living is the main reason. We also have beautiful scenery, beautiful parks and a beautiful area. We have a lot going on here.”
Oxford is surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, which provide breathtaking views of Alabama. From cycling the bike trails on Coldwater Mountain to hiking, swimming and resting atop Alabama’s highest point at nearby Cheaha State Park, residents and visitors have plenty of reasons to stay.
“We know what attracts business,” said Don Hudson, director of Oxford’s Parks and Recreation Department. “They want to have the quality of life, but they also want to have something to do. We’re always trying to find out what events other cities and other areas are doing so we can grow in that particular area.”
One of those developments is Choccolocco Park, a 360-acre facility featuring baseball, softball, track and field, cross-country and soccer amenities. The park, which opened in 2016, also features walking and bike trails around a 30-acre lake, an 18-hole disc golf course and a playground accessible for kids with or without disabilities.
“We want people to have every opportunity that a big city has,” Hudson said. “We want growth in the city, not only facilitywise but accommodating what the people need. We want to meet that need and I think we’ve done a very good job with that so far.”
City leaders are also focused on improving the look and vibrancy of Oxford’s historic downtown. Their efforts shifted into high gear when the city joined Main Street Alabama, an affiliate of Main Street America that is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“When we joined Main Street in 2014, that kind of gave us an easier path to make something happen,” said Hunter Gentry, director of Historic Main Street Oxford. “We were supplied with a lot of different resources for different funding opportunities, trying to ensure our vacant properties are ready for a new business to come in.”
Gentry said those resources and partnerships helped fund a four-year downtown streetscape renovation, which included moving utilities underground, installing sidewalks and creating additional green space.
“That was a huge accomplishment for our city and our downtown,” Gentry said. “Just looking at our downtown from five years ago until now, it’s a complete change. I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
Gentry said he’s even more thrilled about the 17 businesses that have moved into downtown the past seven years.
“They love being in downtown,” Gentry said. “Just the charm and character of our downtown, it’s a unique sense of place. Our city is blessed to be able to handle that.”
City leaders are also focused on attracting bigger industries through Oxford West Industrial Park and Oxford South Industrial Park. The Calhoun County Economic Development Council, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, the Alabama Department of Commerce, Alabama Power and Spire are helping Oxford develop and market properties to prospects.
“It’s a regional concept,” Craft said. “They realize that in this modern world if you try to stand alone you won’t be here anymore, so that’s why we’re all coming together. We want to build this entire region.”
The teamwork extends to public safety. In 2019, Partridge led efforts to create the East Metro Area Crime Center (EMACC), bringing 23 federal, state and local agencies under one roof to solve gun violence, human trafficking, child sex crimes and other problems.
“It’s an entire team effort,” Partridge said. “Anytime you can work regionally together and bring people together to the table to help – not only your city but the region – that’s a good thing for everybody.”
Partridge, who was born and raised in Oxford, said the creation of EMACC is one of his greatest accomplishments in his 14 years as Oxford’s police chief.
“It feels really good to see where we are now from where we’ve come from,” Partridge said. “I would never have dreamed that I would be in the place and the position I am in right now. Oxford is a very special place to me and a very special place to our officers, and we want to make sure it stays that way.”
Craft agrees, adding that the people are what make Oxford a great place to live.
“The people here are just wonderful,” Craft said. “That’s what makes Oxford special to me.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)