Any money that that comes from ADECA’s $49.2 million appropriation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is supposed to be used in the public’s interest. It might not be considered in the public interest by everyone to use disaster relief funds to build a $3.5 facility, the EDGE — Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation business incubator, to be used by the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce.
The property to be used for the EDGE is a freebie too. There were negotiations to acquire the storm damaged Armed Forces Reserve Center property from the Department of Defense to be used for the Chamber’s EDGE facility. The Department of Defense regulations also require that the property be used in a way that will provide a public benefit.
The first three businesses that were “incubated” at the EDGE were: Forza Financial ( a nonprofit business operated by students that issues micro loans), Southern Traditions Apparel ( a clothing company that produces shirts for sorority and fraternity events on campus ) and Zambooki, LLC ( a contractor referral company that also offers web development and business strategy services ).
In 2012 the Tuscaloosa City Council’s Public Projects Committee endorsed the use of the center’s property for use as a public park, after The University of Alabama could not use the damaged structure for a garage for its fleet of school-owned vehicles and its environmental health department. In 2009 the use of the old military facility for a Housing Authority’s social services center for homeless families was considered. The Transit Authority would have also used the depot and maintenance area for its bus maintenance facility.
Now the City of Tuscaloosa has finally found a way to allow the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce to get a piece of the disaster relief pie. In recent years the City has been increasingly snuggling up to the Chamber is an ever more cozier relationship.
In 2012 the City gave the Chamber an annual $175,000 contract to manage its economic development. The Chamber’s CEO Jim Page explained, “This structure is new to this area, but it’s pretty common throughout the state and throughout the country.” Page, as vice president for public policy and business development at the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, had a similar economic development arrangement with that smaller city in Northern Alabama. The West Alabama Chamber has had a University of Alabama centered orientation for economic development. It’s business journal is even called “The Rising Tide.“ The Chamber has never seen a student housing project proposed by an out of town developer that it didn’t like. The City has usually seemed to concur with the Chamber’s sentiment. However, due to a perceived glut of new high density student housing, the City has now formed a student housing task force.
All the low lying ( student housing ) fruit may have been already plucked but now the Chamber has its EDGE toy to look forward to. Many citizens of Tuscaloosa would probably prefer a public park to be located on the old armory property and that the disaster relief money be spent on providing more affordable housing, not only low income housing. The average resident of Tuscaloosa would not be able to pay the rent at the kind of housing the Chamber has supported.