By KATHRYN ACREE
Ask any long-time resident (or short-time resident for that matter) about the people who worked to make Chelsea the bustling small city it is today, and the name Earl Niven will quickly enter the conversation.
Mayor since the city officially incorporated in March 1996, Earl Niven is a lifelong Chelsea resident with roots that run deep. 280 Living sat down with Niven recently to discuss all things Chelsea, past, present and future.
Tell us about growing up in this area.
Home for me was down County Road 335. I was one of eight children, and we did a little farming and had a little garden for our family. My father worked for U.S. Steel in Birmingham, and I was always involved in athletics growing up. I went to Chelsea Elementary and Junior High then Shelby County High School and on to college at Montevallo.
I was the first senior high math teacher at Chelsea High School when it opened, then I went to work for Alabama Power for 28 years. In 1996 I was elected mayor, so I took an “early out” from Alabama Power in 1998 to work as mayor full-time.
How did Chelsea get its name?
This area was originally called Melrose until a train depot was built here in about 1906. There was already a depot named Melrose, and there are many stories about how the name was chosen. The railroad renamed the depot Chelsea, and we have been known as Chelsea since that time.
How did the push to incorporate Chelsea in the 1990s begin?
The growth in other municipalities such as Pelham and Hoover were headed in our direction. We realized we had a lot to be proud of here in Chelsea—our heritage and traditions—that was what we wanted to protect. Any municipality could come down Highway 280 and get all the tax revenue; what would that give the residents away from Highway 280? When you look at the first map of the city when we incorporated, I’ve described it as looking like a plate of chicken fingers. It had a little core in the center, but a leg would run out here and there to cut off other municipalities from annexing and getting to Highway 280.
How has the city handled its rapid growth?
In 1996 when we incorporated, the growth started, and we were just trying to keep our head above the water. Being a new city, you start out with a blank sheet of paper, so we had to learn as we went along. We were very blessed with having Winn-Dixie come in off 280 as one of our first big businesses to give us a tax base.
We started off with 906 people in the city in 1996. In 2000, that had grown to over 2,900, and in 2010 our census showed 10,183; that’s a 245 percent population increase over the last ten years. Several things helped our growth: the growth coming out of Jefferson County and into Shelby County that originally stopped around the Greystone area began to cross over Double Oak Mountain into our area, and some of our big subdivisions here, Chesser Plantation and Chelsea Park, experienced big growth. Then there is the quality of life here just in what the Shelby County Schools offer. The city is very education-oriented, and we have a wide variety of churches in the area. If you like the hectic pace, stay on 280, but if you like it more rural, just go a half-mile off 280. All of that gives people a choice in how they want to live.
What is the city looking toward in new growth?
We need another sit-down restaurant and building material/hardware retailer, and I’m working to bring that here. We have quite a few fast food places and a new Wendy’s coming in a few months. One of the pluses in our planning is that we’re not trying to develop areas that are decreasing in commercial growth; we have a blank, open Highway 280 that we can build new construction on. We’ve had Publix, Walmart, Tractor Supply and Walgreens all come to the city in the last five years, even when the economy was going down.
The new Chelsea Elementary is being built off County Road 337 and Kings Home Drive. It’s slated to open August 2013. It will be for grades K-5 and so will Mt Laurel and Chelsea Park. There will not be an Intermediate School, but that former space will expand the middle school.
This coming year we hope to introduce the planning of a community center that will be used as a senior adult center as well as including a full-size gym with an overhead walking track. The center would have meeting rooms for use by the community. In the years ahead, we want to redirect County Roads 47 and 39 to eliminate the traffic that builds at that intersection. We’d love to build a new library that would be on the hillside behind city hall and move the history museum to where the library is now located in the old Crane Home.
What are your thoughts on the plans for Highway 280?
I’m in favor of the elevated highway plan for many reasons. One way I’ve looked at it is anything that helps our families get home faster in the evenings is a good thing. We have more than 1,300 children involved with youth sports in Chelsea, so that tells you we have many young families. If your commute takes you an hour or an hour and a half to just get home, it’s dark and too late to participate with your children in these activities. If the elevated highway comes in, people can make the decision on their own if they want to pay the toll fee or go 280 and shop or eat.
What are your interests or hobbies?
I’m a family person. June and I have been married 46 years and have two sons and six grandkids. We love to travel; we’ve been to all 50 states. I love photography, and we’re very involved in our church, Liberty Baptist. It’s family, church, city. That’s my life.
When is the next city election?
August 28 is Chelsea’s next city election. I’m up for re-election as mayor, and we’ll be voting on five council positions.