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Community Development

Economic developers in Tuscaloosa are confident that from the wreckage of the tornadoes the city will be able to rebuild in such a way that it will be better than before.

The devastation caused by the April 27 tornadoes that ripped through Alabama left parts of Tuscaloosa in ruins.

The devastation caused by the April 27 tornadoes that ripped through Alabama left parts of Tuscaloosa in ruins.

Photo by Caroline Baird Summers

The storms of April 27 left a devastating path through the city that will take a long time to make whole again. But in the wake of such destruction is a determination to create a brighter future, and the city has taken several steps to do that.

“This was an incredible disaster that we hope to never see again, but it also is an incredible opportunity for us to rebuild to a much higher standard, to correct mistakes and improve our infrastructure,” says John McConnell, the city’s director of planning and development services. “As unfortunate as it was, it has opened up a lot of possibilities that were not there before.”

A new initiative, Tuscaloosa Forward, relies on professional, as well as citizen, input and planning to come up with ways to redevelop areas that were affected, McConnell says. The task force also has a website, public meeting announcements on planning, including town hall meetings with Mayor Walt Maddox, and a link where residents can submit ideas and comments.

“We could just build back things as they were, but the community is telling us they want to do things differently and that we can do more,” McConnell says. “We’ve had stakeholder meetings with several groups, from homebuilders to school officials to youth.”

The city recently unveiled a proposed rebuilding plan that includes several uses for the devastated area, from residential, parks and open space to a greenway trail, industrial and mixed use. The city contracted with BNIM, an architectural, planning and design firm headquartered in Kansas City that has experience working with communities affected by disaster. For example, the company worked with Greensburg, Kansas in 2007, when a tornado wiped out about 95 percent of the town’s homes and businesses, he says. The firm led the charge to design a sustainable master plan for that city. The firm also will help Tuscaloosa with grants and public/private collaborations, he says.

The plan includes affordable and mixed-income housing, mixed commercial and residential districts, village centers, revitalized corridors and more. Tuscaloosa City Councilwoman Cynthia Almond says she is pleased to see several components in the plan, including greenways and pocket parks. “We had some structures that were in the flood plain before there was a federal flood program and cannot be rebuilt, but some good can come from the bad. We have wanted to make the city more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.”

Expecting that there will be some public apprehension about the plan because of the changes, Almond says she is glad there will be plenty of public input and discussion before the council makes a final decision later this year.

McConnell says there will be a prioritization process and the plan will take shape as the planning process continues. “We lost our entire environmental services department, all the equipment, our EMA, a police precinct, a fire station, two elementary schools…there are a lot of things that we need to look at.”

A big difference in this disaster has been the public’s reaction, McConnell says. “I’ve been involved with many planning initiatives and usually people will tell you what they didn’t like, what they are fed up with,” he says. “But this public process has been different. The community has come together in a positive manner for the future of Tuscaloosa. All our petty concerns just went away on April 27.”

Northport did not suffer the same type of tornado damage that neighboring Tuscaloosa did—mostly downed trees—but it has helped its neighbor in the recovery process, says Mayor Bobby Herndon.

Yet the storms benefitted the city financially quite unexpectedly, by some businesses that relocated into Northport from Tuscaloosa. “I’m happy for the business, but I’m sorry it had to happen that way,” Herndon says. “In some cases, the move was across the river or even across the street. Otherwise, we were before these storms, and still are, recruiting hotels, restaurants and other retail.”

The city’s riverfront district attracted its first hotel, a Hampton Inn and Suites, to be located across from the amphitheatre, he says. It is about to begin construction. “We do have retail and other businesses looking at us as they look for sites to locate movie theatres, restaurants and other things,” he says. “We just have to continue to attract them and get them here.”

The town of 1,500 is the fastest growing municipality in the county, says Vance Mayor Keith Mahaffey. Home to the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International automotive production plant—the state’s largest exporter—the town is gearing up for changes.

First, the town is seeking land for a new town hall, Mahaffey says. The project, set to cost from $500,000 to $750,000, will house all city offices, including the mayor’s office, council chambers, building inspection, the wastewater treatment offices, police, clerk, courts and magistrate, he says. The town also is looking to build a park with walking trails and ball fields, eventually adding a multi-purpose building for events and senior activities.

“We continue to grow with suppliers to Mercedes, and we did gain some residents due to the storms,” he says. “And, with the C-Class being built in Vance, adding about a thousand more jobs, we will keep growing.”

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