It's hard not to notice the uniqueness of Pike Road. Meander down the winding roads, through the rolling hills adorned with moss-draped oaks, and you start to feel it. This countryside has been attracting settlers for many generations.
Records tell us that the marks, Meriwether and Mathews families put down roots here around 1815. They must have seen something - sensed something - special about this land. Still today, settlers are attracted to this territory - some for new and different reasons, but many find the same appeal.
About 45 years after Pike Road's original school system dissolved, this community is on the brink of launching a new Mecca in education.
A Town Flourishing
It was in 1918 - actually on November 11, a day that would later be marked as Veteran's Day for the ceasefire which essentially ended World War 1 - that nearby families, who had pooled their financial resources, opened Montgomery County's first consolidated school. Previously, children in grades 1 to 12 were taught in rural, one-room schoolhouses. The Alabama Historical Association says that educators came from around the globe to explore the experimental system. Pike Road residents even then were being innovative, truly living as a community, and setting trends.
The last school in the area closed in 1970, but once again, the citizens of this town are embarking on an educational venture as they open the doors in fall of 2015 to a school for students in Kindergarten to 8th grade. Another grade will be added each year after that, until the first class graduates in 2020.
The new Pike Road School system was officially established in December 2010, and the following year more than 55 percent of voters approved an ad valorem tax to fund it, and separation negotiations with the Montgomery Public Schools continue.
"To start a school system from scratch gives and opportunity very few communities have," said Dr. Ed Richardson, the former state superintendent of education who's been guiding the town through the complex development process.
Quality in public education was identified as one of the four "pillars" residents specifically desired for the town when they brainstormed and set goals in 2005. But in September 2013 when an architectural firm presented a rendering of the school's first building, it was a tangible indicator that the dream was becoming a reality.
"This design is the result of years of involvement and input from citizens," Mayor Gordon Stone said. "Pike Road residents can take pride in the knowledge that this facility will allow for all of their goals to be achieved within budget." With ground-breaking occurring this past January, the first campus will accommodate 850 students, according to Mayor Stone; currently there are 400 Pike Road youngsters in the public school system.
The school board recently hired Dr. Suzanne Freeman as the system's first superintendent. Dr. Freeman served as the superintendent of schools in Cullman for four years, and then in Trussville. She also held high-level positions within the Auburn City Schools. Dr. Freeman was named the state superintendent of the year in 2008, and was one of four finalists for national school superintendent of the year in 2009.
Ray Hawthorne serves as president of the newly formed school board, and he recently commented on the selection of Dr. Freeman as superintendent: "To the board, one of the biggest and most important factors is that she understands the vision and the dream that is Pike Road. She understands that we are a town doing the right thing for the right reasons. She understands that we are a community, that we are a team, and she understands that education is a strong cornerstone for this community."
So much of the school's progress, however, is thanks to ARK Real Estate Strategies, the developers of The Waters community, which gave a parcel of land located adjacent to The Waters for the new facility.
"Since the first campus for the school system is being built on property that was donated and there was not a need to invest an extraordinary amount of resources into the infrastructure, the people will realized that more resources are available for teaching and instructional support," Mayor Stone said. "Thanks to The Waters management and the great community spirit of the neighborhood, the first campus begins advantageously!"
Front Porch Paradise at The Waters
Being a "good neighbor" is not a novel concept in Pike Road. While the town now includes about 40 distinct neighborhoods, one the most spectacular is The Waters. This picturesque tract of land was once 1,000+ acres of grazing pasture - and the developers have meticulously preserved much of the natural beauty and tranquility. It's almost hard to believe you're less than 15 minutes to Eastchase shopping, and 20 miles from downtown Montgomery.
Hundreds of homes now surround the 200-acre Lake Cameron, the county's largest lake. The traditional Southern architecture seen at The Waters offers everything from mansions to carriage houses to cottages, and the lot sizes and square-footage options of the homes vary to meet the needs of the owners. But some elements are consistent. Surrounded by acres of green spaces and gentle streetscapes (which include solar-operated street lights), the homes contain many modern conveniences and enchanting front porches.
"It's not the vacation home; it just feels like it," is a motto often heard at The Waters, which is true considering the many amenities. Paddleboats, canoes, fishing boats, and a pontoon are available for residents to enjoy. Incidentally, all watercraft are either people-powered or electric to maintain the peacefulness. And the lake's marina offers amazing views. An oversized swimming pool and outdoor grilling station are situated near the white sands of Lake Cameron Beach, while a second pool is in the works. But when the family is ready to run and play, The Waters offers a soccer field, basketball/sports court, playground, five tennis courts, as well as a bark park. Plus, the wooded lots throughout the property are perfect for nature hikes.
The sense of community is important to those who call The Waters home. A lively social calendar features numerous opportunities to bring neighbors together. Whether it's a Mardi Gras parade, Easter egg hunt, an old-fashioned Independence Day celebration, neighborhood barbecue, movie night or a hayride, there's always something fun happening in these friendly streets.
The iconic Chapel Hill Meeting House at the center of the community is perched atop a gently sloping hill. With indoor seating for up to 250 and adjacent outdoor space for tents, this majestic location offers the ideal setting for memorable events like weddings, family reunions, and other gatherings. Also a hub of the neighborhood, "town center" is home to various businesses including Cindy Bargainer Interiors, a dentist, accountant, life coach, and restaurant space.
Jennifer Atkins, vice president of marketing and development for The Waters, explains that the residents are "not just buying a home, but buying a lifestyle." With a current population near 600, this thoughtfully designed "traditional neighborhood development" is a place where people of all ages can feel at home.
ARK Real Estate Strategies LLC, the developers based in Birmingham, is committed to creating a long-term value for homeowners here. "At The Waters, we've recreated that vibrant neighborhood spirit where sidewalks and front porches frame the streets and the entire neighborhood is your home."
Historic, Yet Progressive
In 1997, about 97 percent of voters in the Pike Road area chose to incorporate. They chose independence. Since then many residents have become deeply involved in the evolution of this community. In 2000, the population hovered around 310. By 2012, it had grown to more than 6,000.
"The opportunity to build a town from the ground-up has been amazing for the people of Pike Road," Mayor Stone noted. "The job of the municipality has been to respond to the goals established by the citizens. Consequently, Pike Road is a town built on four pillars: planning, education, quality of life and good services." And at the forefront of every project, residents and officials remain committed to the goal of "preserving the character while planning for progress."
The ENHANCE Initiative, created a couple of years ago, organized nine citizen groups that develop community programs in the areas of recreation, agriculture, arts, education and business; plus the town has a charitable foundation, a prayer team for local pastors, and group of leaders from the three dozen neighborhoods in town.
"The tremendous amount of volunteerism is the great indicator of the spirit of Pike Road," Mayor Stone said. "In almost every activity from Summerfest to the half marathon to the art classes, the town has experienced an amazing amount of enthusiasm. Citizens have taken the 'Welcome Home' motto and made it real."
Just like the "patriot" depicted in the town's logo, and the school's chosen mascot, the residents of Pike Road have a sense of citizenship that runs deep. Being neighborly and patriotic is more than a slogan here.
"We thank the Lord for the blessings of our community, from the hospitality of the people to the beauty of the land." The mayor said. "These gifts inspire us to develop a long-range plan that allows for the town of Pike Road to retain this special character for years to come."
One of the major projects underway is the Pike Road Natural Trail, which is designed to accommodate walkers, runners and off road bicyclists. Once completed, the trail system will connect many of the town's neighborhoods and parks, offering a healthy transportation alternative and way to enjoy Pike Road's scenery. Funded by a grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the trail will be constructed in phases and include "trailheads" with parking areas.
And there's more. According to Mayor Stone, a museum project is currently in the works, a mural wall is under consideration, and an agriculture-recreation park is on the horizon. "All of these projects will allow for more connectivity of citizens and a linking of people and places. The bottom-line is that the more we connect people the more we strengthen the 'Welcome Home' spirit of the town," he added.
Thus far, business has been good. In September, the town received and AA credit rating from Standard & Poor's, a positive reflection on the town's ability to meet its financial obligations. And the mayor said that Pike Road has more than a year of operating reserves in the bank.
In the villages nestled in these rolling hills and winding roads are citizens who take stewardship seriously and who are willing to give back to their community. Nearly 200 years after the founding families began farming this region, their heirs are continuing the rich legacy, and caring for the land and each other.
For more information on the town or progress of the school system, visit http://thewatersal.com.