In 1848, the Montgomery & West Point Railroad Company extended a rail line from Montgomery, Alabama to Opelika, and in 1851 completed a connection to West Point, Georgia, thus connecting Opelika with Atlanta, Georgia. This line was the only direct rail route between New Orleans and the Eastern Seaboard, and rapidly became one of the primary trade lines for shipments of raw cotton from Southern plantations to the North. The Montgomery & West Point was soon joined by a rail connection to Columbus, Georgia in 1855, and a connection to Birmingham, Alabama in 1869. Almost overnight, Opelika became a regional hub for commerce.
To manage this rapid growth, Opelika was incorporated as a town on February 9 1854. As a result of Opelika's transportation infrastructure, many warehouses for storing cotton and other goods were built. With the onset of the Civil War these warehouses were converted to Confederate supply depots. In 1864 and 1865, Union raids commanded by Lovell Rousseau and James H. Wilson attacked Opelika, tearing up the railroads and destroying all government property, including Opelika's warehouses.
Soon after the end of the war, the Alabama state legislature created a new county out of parts of Macon, Russell, Chambers, and Tallapoosa counties to be named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In 1866, citizens of the new "Lee County" voted Opelika as the county seat, despite the fact that Opelika was technically unincorporated after having its charter revoked for abetting the rebellion against the United States.
After Opelika received a new charter in 1870, rapid growth resumed. The town nearly doubled in size between 1870 and 1900. During this time, Opelika began to gain a reputation as a wild, lawless town. Soon after receiving the new charter, city officials attempted to scam outside investors by issuing fake railroad bonds. For this, the town's charter was revoked again in 1872, and the town was administered as a police district by the state legislature for the following year. Opelika's downtown was packed with saloons, and frequent gunfire in the streets led to railroads ordering passengers passing through Opelika to duck beneath the windows to avoid being shot.
In 1882, voters dismissed the incumbent city government. Unwilling to give up power, the city council nullified the election until the courts ruled against them. When the state yet again revoked Opelika's charter, the city leaders took up arms against those that opposed them, and the governor was forced to send in the militia to restore order. Opelika remained under unelected military rule for the sixteen years until 1899, when Opelika's charter was again restored.
In 1900, local investors founded the Opelika Cotton Mill as the first textile plant in the city, employing 125. Attempts to expand the textile industry in Opelika continued for the next three decades, and in 1925 city officials were able to use a $62,500 bribe to induce the executives of the Pepperell Manufacturing Co. (now WestPoint International) to construct a large mill just outside of the Opelika city limits. The period between 1930 and 1970 would turn out to be Opelika's heyday, as industrial growth turned Opelika into a regional economic powerhouse.
Opelika continued to add factories and other industry throughout the middle years of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, Opelika attracted the nation's first and largest magnetic tape manufacturing plant. In 1963, tire manufacturer Uniroyal constructed a massive plant in Opelika, and around the same time Diversified Products revolutionized the physical fitness equipment industry with products produced their Opelika plant. By the early 1970s, Opelika's industries employed nearly 10,000.
Between the late 1970s and 2005, non-agricultural employment in the Auburn-Opelika, AL MSA grew at a slow and steady pace. Of the goods producing industries, the metropolitan area has experienced the most change in manufacturing, peaking in the late 1980s with declining employment since then. This trend appears to be changing, however, as the number of manufacturing jobs has risen steadily since 2002.
In the late 1990s, Opelika sought to increase its industrial employment base by purchasing and developing the Northeast Opelika Industrial Park. The park site was purchased with funds from two bond issues, commonly called the 1998A and 1998B issues, totaling $10,280,000. Additional expenditures involved in constructing the Northeast Opelika Industrial Park included $4.3 million transferred from the City's general fund to the Opelika Industrial Development Authority (OIDA) between 1997 and 2000, a $1.9 million federal industrial park access road grant, $2.5 million from Opelika Water Works Board and the City of Opelika to sewer and water the park, $12.1 million from the Alabama Department of Transportation to construct an interchange. Additional expenditures were made by Tallapoosa Electric Cooperative for an electrical substation and by the OIDA for building construction for park tenants. Final expenditures for the land and development of the park totaled approximately $32 million. Since 1999, two major distribution centers and three tier 1 automotive suppliers have located within the park. The site has also attracted serious interest from automakers Audi, Nissan, and Hyundai. In the summer of 2003, the park was recognized as one of the "South's Best Automotive Assembly Plant Sites" by Southern Business & Development, an industry trade publication.
Opelika has also experienced a boom in retail development. TigerTown, a new mixed-use development, will be east Alabama's largest retail center with more than of retail space when completed. Located at the intersection of Interstate 85 and Highway 280 in Opelika, TigerTown's tenants include The Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, Starbucks Coffee, PETCO, Office Depot, Hibbett Sports, World Market, Hobby Lobby, and Old Navy, to name a few.
As industrial and retail growth spur the city forward, the city may see an increase in its population. Opelika's population stood in 2000 at 23,638, and after several years of small losses, estimates show Opelika's 2005 population to be 23,804.
The chief executive official of the city of Opelika is the mayor. The mayor is elected at-large for a four-year term. The mayor has complete executive power in the city, and can appoint and dismiss department heads at will. The current mayor of Opelika is Gary Fuller.
The Opelika city council is the legislative body of the city. It passes laws and ordinances, and creates city-wide policy. The city council is made up of five members, chosen for four year terms each from one of five districts. Current council members through 2008 are:
Recently the city council designated Opelika as a City of Character. The City of Character program is made to recognize, emphasize and in some cases enforce good character throughout the community as well as mandate character training from CharacterFirst!. There are 49 character traits emphasized. These traits were designated by Bill Gothard.
Opelika is located at (32.647183, -85.389404).
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 53.4 square miles (138.4 km²), of which, 52.8 square miles (136.7 km²) of it is land and 0.7 square miles (1.7 km²) of it (1.24%) is water.
Recent projects include the Jo-Ann Stores Distribution Center, an employer of 150 with plans to expand to 425 employees. Other new, large employers include Maxforma Plastics (a supplier for Hyundai) and Gambro Renal Products (a Swedish manufacturer of dialyzers for kidney dialysis). Gambro made the largest single initial investment in Lee County’s history of $110 million. For the 2005 fiscal year, new industries made investments of $170 million.
In addition to new industries moving to the city, two existing industries have announced plans to expand their operations. Twin City Wholesale made a capital investment of $2 million and brought on 10 new employees. The Opelika-Auburn News (now a Media General Company) plans to build a new publishing center, which will bring a capital investment of $13.5 million and add 20 additional employees. The grand total of investments from new and existing industries in 2005 was $191.5 million.
The Tiger Town retail shopping complex continues to expand its commercial developments with the recent openings of Hobby Lobby and World Market and the 2006 opening of The Olive Garden restaurant.
Opelika has received several honors over the last several years for its success in attracting new business. In 2004, the city of Opelika's Economic Development Department was named one of the top 10 economic development groups in North America by Site Selection magazine, a national industry trade publication covering corporate real estate management and economic development. Site Selection again recognized the efforts of the Opelika Economic Development Department in its Top Groups 2005 list in the Honorable Mention category.
In early 2006, the Economic Development Association of Alabama named Opelika the top community in Alabama for business recruitment for the year 2005. Opelika also received the #1 rank in the South as "Small Market of the Year" by Southern Business and Development magazine, a professional publication that helps corporations around the country (and world) in their expansion, relocation and development decisions. The city earned its #1 status through its success in bringing Gambro, Jo-Ann, Maxforma, Benteler and Mando Corporation to the community in 2005.
The Auburn-Opelika, AL MSA is also home to Auburn University. Auburn University was founded in 1856 and is one of the largest universities in the South. The university employs approximately 1,176 full time faculty and, in the fall of 2005, enrolled 23,333 students. The faculty to student ratio is 1:16.
Opelika City Schools is accredited by the Alabama State Department of Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The school system enrolls approximately 4,500 students on nine campuses. Opelika has three primary schools with grades K-2, three intermediate schools with grades 3-5, one middle school with grades 6-8, one high school Opelika High School with grades 9-12, and one at-risk school. Opelika's schools have traditionally had strong programs in technology and the arts.
58.7% of teachers in the public school system hold advanced degrees. In 2005, the system graduated 267 students. Opelika City Schools system met its state accountability goals (2005-2006 AYP Status: Made AYP) for 2005-2006.
In recent years, Opelika’s percentage of students on free or reduced lunches rose to 58.66% during the 2005-2006 school year. Concurrently, its average scores on statewide standardized tests fell (though the most recent scores on the High School Graduation Exam were at or above the state average in three of the five subjects measured). The impact of the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches on standardized tests outcomes can significantly affect how achievement is measured. According to research conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, Opelika City Schools performed above the expected results for a school with the number of children enrolled who are receiving free or reduced lunch.
There were 9,200 households out of which 34.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 45.2% were married couples living together, 20.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.9% were non-families. 26.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 9.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.49 and the average family size was 3.02.
In the city the population was spread out with 27.6% under the age of 18, 9.0% from 18 to 24, 29.8% from 25 to 44, 21.7% from 45 to 64, and 11.8% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females there were 87.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 81.9 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $33,397, and the median income for a family was $43,200. Males had a median income of $31,237 versus $21,819 for females. The per capita income for the city was $18,023. About 14.9% of families and 17.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 26.2% of those under age 18 and 14.9% of those age 65 or over.
The Pine Hill Haints have a song called "Opelika Train"
Yung Envy mentions Opelika at the end of his song " I Like Her"
Johnny Cash mentions Opelika in his song "I've Been Everywhere"