Friendly and Picturesque, Fairhope, Alabama Boasts Waterfront Charm, a Gentle Spirit and Old Fashioned Southern Character
Cost of Living: Above the National Average
Quaint Fairhope (population 19,000) is nestled on a sloping bluff overlooking Alabama's Mobile Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, and it was established by a group of tax reformers as an experimental colony in 1894 (they thought it had a "fair hope" of success). These enterprising folks believed in the single-tax theory advocated by late nineteenth-century political economist Henry George and wanted to build their own version of utopia. Colonists formed a corporation, the Single Tax Corporation, and through it purchased land on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.
The corporation then leased the land to colonists, collected rent from them and then paid a single land tax to the government. The idea varied a bit from George's, but the Fairhope colonists were able to make their version work fairly well until the Great Depression arrived and rendered it impossible for many families to pay rent to the corporation.
The Fairhope Single Tax Corporation still exists today and is one of two such tax colonies in the U.S. (the other is in Arden, Delaware). Over the years, Fairhope has morphed from a utopian dream to essentially a very nice Mobile suburb, but the fact that the FSTC still owns 4,500 acres here is partly why the city is so beautifully landscaped and well-maintained more than one hundred years after its inception. In fact, Fairhope has won awards for its parks, colorful flower beds and well-preserved large moss-covered oak trees.
The city has boomed in the last couple of decades, having more than doubled in size. There is a sizable retiree population (50% of residents are age 45 or better), and residents have a reputation for being friendly and welcoming. Forty-seven percent hold at least a four year college degree. Most are very conservative politically. Racial diversity is minimal, and the crime rate meets the national average.
The cost of living is 9% above the national average, and the median home price is $260,000. There are some beautiful older homes here, many overlooking the Bay, and several neighborhoods in particular draw retirees. One such neighborhood is Hollowbrook where attractive brick ranch ramblers are for sale in the high-$100,000s. Miller's Crossing is a new neighborhood that attracts all ages but has homes from the high-$100,000s. Gayfer Court is an established condominium community within walking distance of downtown and has two-story units from the low-$200,000s. Key Allegro Villas is a manufactured community that caters to seniors and has affordable mobile homes.
Fairhope also has a number of more expensive subdivisions. Deep Tree Forest has single family homes from the high-$200,000s. Rock Creek is a master-planned golf community with homes from the high-$200,000s. Woodlands at Fairhope may be one of the most exclusive neighborhood with homes from the $500,000s. Million dollar homes are available, too. It also worth noting that people who purchase a house on "colony land" secure ownership of the house but receive a 99-year lease on the land and pay rent to the Single Tax Corporation (which has 1,800 or more such leaseholds).
Alabama is a friendly state when it comes to retirement and taxes (and overall it has one of the lowest tax burdens in the country). Social Security, military, civil service, state/local government and qualified private pensions are all exempt from state tax (but distributions from 401(k)s and IRAs are taxed between 1% and 5%). Real estate is assessed at 10% of its fair market value, and homeowners 65 and better are exempt from all state property taxes. Seniors may also receive a homestead exemption of between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on annual income. In Fairhope, the annual taxes on a $260,000 home are approximately $1,185. The state sales tax is 4%, and prescription drugs are exempt (but food is not).
Fairhope was a resort destination throughout much of its history, attracting wealthy northerners in search of warmer winter weather. It has also been a favorite of writers and intellectuals, and today it remains the home of many artists and craftsmen who come for the inviting cultural climate.
Fairhope may indeed be one of the prettiest towns in the South, with sweeping waterfront vistas and an attractive, tree-lined downtown full of comforting bookstores, eclectic art galleries, fun boutiques and fun eateries that include gumbo shacks, American diners, delis, Irish pubs, Cajun bistros and bakeries with homemade desserts. Two open air markets sell everything from fresh produce to jewelry. Walmart wanted to locate downtown, but residents fought the move. The giant retailer is now on the eastern edge of town.
Fairhope has been experiencing growing pains and has instituted strict zoning laws to ensure that it retains its gentle charm. The Single Tax Fairhope Corporation continues to contribute to the town's overall quality of life through various ventures, which include a 43-acre nature park, the landscaped museum plaza, the veterans' memorial, the hospital's new emergency room and the library's renovation. Each year, 200 trees are planted throughout town, and colorful flower baskets hang from nearly every street lamp, evoking a storybook quality. The waterfront is a busy place, and the Fairhope Pier, originally built in the 1920s, is a town highlight with duck ponds, a water fountain, rose gardens and a picnic area. Not to be missed are the sunsets over the Bay, with Mobile (population 200,000) twinkling in the distance.
Boating enthusiasts love that there are three marinas, with nearly every kind water vessel imaginable. Charters are available for fishing or for just taking a sail along the shore. Golfing is a year-round pleasure thanks to the area's mild climate. Quail Creek is an 18-hole public course, as is the nearby Marriott's Lakewood Golf Club. Rock Creek Golf Club is a beautiful semi-private club.
Fairhope also has its share of fun events. The biggest annual event, the Arts and Crafts Festival, occurs in March and is one of the oldest and largest festivals of its kind in the South. Hundreds of artists and fine craftsmen from around the U.S. and overseas come to this prestigious three-day event to show and sell their wares to crowds estimated to be 150,000 strong. The yearly Jubilee, when bottom-dwelling fish rush en masse to the shore to meet eagerly awaiting residents with buckets in hand, is a town favorite. The Fairhope Yacht Club sponsors regattas throughout the year.
The Fairhope Public Library has been around since the early days when book lover and world traveler Edward Howland brought books to the fledging colony from London, Amsterdam and Paris. Many of the library's first books are on display, and today a robust lecture series, book review groups and online classes make FPL a welcoming gathering place. Computers with internet access are available.
There is no public transportation system within town, but Baldwin Rural Area Transportation System (BRATS) has an on demand service that travels between Fairhope and other towns along the coast. The cost to ride ranges from $2 to $7, depending on distance. Mobile has a regional airport, but the nearest international airport is 175 miles away in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Jay P. Nix Center provides daily activities for people age 50 and better. It has 1,100 members, and programs offered include sailing events, potluck lunches, Dominos, pool and billiards, ballroom dancing lessons, support groups, ice cream socials, birthday parties, blood pressure screening, cooking classes and much more.
Accredited by the Joint Commission, Thomas Hospital is a 150-bed facility and a Thomson Reuters' Top 100 Hospital. It has also won national honors for its cardiovascular care and patient safety record. Medicare patients are accepted. Further medical options, including a VA outpatient clinic, are located in Mobile. The nearest VA hospital is in Biloxi, Mississippi, 65 miles away.
The area has a humid, subtropical climate, meaning hot, humid summers and generally mild winters. Summer high temperatures reach into the low-90s, and winter temperatures are in the 40s, 50s and 60s. On the comfort index, a combination of temperature and humidity, the city comes in well below the national average. The sun shines 220 days of the year, and on average, rain comes 114 days of the year. The air quality is below the national average, but the water quality is above the national average.
Fairhope is pretty, quiet and safe, but it has some drawbacks. The chance of a tornado is 77% above the national average. Residents worry about the town's growth and do not always agree about how to maintain Fairhope's quality of life.
Even with these downsides, Fairhope has an allure that is hard to resist. The original colonists may not have created their utopia, but they came close and in the process planted the seeds of this thriving, modern day Southern gem.
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