The expansion of Auburn, to high-rise apartment buildings and more chain businesses, seems to be causing some of its residents to decide to settle in the quieter neighboring town of Opelika.
Auburn and Opelika have both grown rapidly in recent years. Auburn grew by 24% from 2010-2019, and Opelika grew by 16.7% over the same time period, according to Census data. With this growth, Auburn's downtown has quickly expanded upwards.
Kimberly Freeze, lead administrative assistant for clinical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is now a resident of Opelika but grew up in Auburn before moving to different parts of the country.
“I actually just got back to Auburn in July,” Freeze said. “I’ve gone to downtown twice, and I emotionally cannot go downtown very often. It really hurts my heart. It’s just to grow up here, and to see what it looks like now ... don’t get me wrong, I love my town, but it’s just not what I’m used to. It’s gonna take me a minute to get used to seeing the big buildings.”
In 2001, Kelli Thompson, professor of psychology at Auburn, was a freshman at Auburn, experiencing it for the fist time. Twenty years ago, both campus and downtown looked a lot different.
“Campus changed a lot, we used to drive,” Thompson said. “There were a lot more cut-throughs and streets, so you would have to drive through campus, so when I was here it became a lot more pedestrian … I think Bizilia’s, Toomer’s Drugs, Cheeburger Cheeburger, Mellow Mushroom and Big Blue Bagel are the only things that’s stayed … everything else has changed.”
To Thompson, it seems like Auburn is really only suitable for those who actively attend school there.
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“It’s a very different city to live in as a young professional, because it seems like the entire town and all of the industry is geared toward students,” Thompson said. “It’s all based off the students, right? Like you have to sign a lease six months in advance, so when I returned to Auburn a few years after getting my Ph.D., I decided to give Opelika a try, and it’s structured much differently, like I could find a quick rental for one to two months.”
Thompson added that Opelika was a better fit for the phase of life she was in.
“I enjoyed living where the bars are walking distance for me in downtown Opelika, with more of a clientele I want to be around, right?” Thompson said. “Once you're not in undergrad anymore, like, [Skybar], it’s not a bar you can go to have a conversation in.”
The city and campus, both seemingly ever under construction, have changed even since 2016. That's when Annie Campbell, assistant professor of ceramics at Auburn, began living in the area.
“Sometimes I’ll go away all summer to go do something, and I’ll come back and get like a five-story building there that wasn’t there before. It’s actually part of our reasoning for, you know, settling in Opelika,” Campbell said.
Unlike Freeze and Thompson, Campbell made her decision to live in Opelika when she was first introduced to it when she moved to the area for her job in 2016.
“It was kind of immediate,” Campbell said. “It’s not even that my husband and I are into super little towns, it was really that ... it had its own identity and potential and an energy there that was entirely different than Auburn. It wasn’t like, 'How much stuff can we pack in here?' Auburn’s progress seems to be dominated by making money off of student rentals, and Opelika’s seems to be focused on culture building.”
The city is, as Thompson put it, geared toward students, which isn't exactly ideal for Campbell.
“I love my students. I have very close relationships with some of them, but I don’t want to see them on a Saturday if I don’t choose to,” Campbell said.
Money holds significant sway in some residents’ decisions to move from Auburn to Opelika. As Campbell was looking and comparing the price of houses in Opelika and Auburn in 2016, Opelika came out considerably cheaper.
“Cost is a huge factor,” said Kim Golden, a development associate with an affordable housing developer. “I think really considering Opelika truthfully, it’s just a lot more affordable and accessible.”
As of May 2021, the value of a typical middle price tier home in Auburn is 41% higher than a typical home in Opelika, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.
Blanche Mormon, a registered dietitian who grew up in Auburn, also said that Opelika is better suited for her and her husband.
“When we moved back, we were kind of open to both, but more so being pulled towards Opelika,” Mormon said. “Because of our age we were looking for downsizing, and we just fell upon this kind of 55-plus active community. We’re just in a small little neighborhood on a lake with other people our age and older.”
Throughout Auburn's downtown expansion, Thompson said she felt like parking availability hadn't adequately kept pace to handle it.
“There have been many times that I have avoided downtown Auburn because I didn’t want to deal with parking,” Thompson said. “There’s not even convenient parking pay. I can’t pay a parking meter for a few minutes if I wanted to pick up food; I have to pay it for one or two hours.”
Thompson said that she doesn’t think she’ll decide to move back to Auburn.
“I enjoy the charm of Opelika so much, and I can come to Auburn when I want,” Thompson said. “I like that.”
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