The tornado in April of 2011 tore a swath of destruction along Tenth Avenue in Tuscaloosa. Since then the City has been using Housing and Urban Development ( HUD ) funding to rebuild. An impressive low-income housing project, which was already planned before the storm, has been built. It can’t be denied that such use of HUD money was in the public’s interest.
Initial discussion at City Hall about the use of the old storm-damaged property that was formerly used for a U.S. Armed Forces Reserve Center on Tenth Avenue included its use as a park. Now a $9 million dollar facility for the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce will occupy that space. This use of federal money was not entirely the brainchild of Senator Richard Shelby, a stellar provider of pork to the University of Alabama and the City of Tuscaloosa. The City and the Chamber hit on him for federal money. City Recovery Operations director Robin Edgeworth according to The Tuscaloosa News “said that the city began the grant process from the Department of Commerce several months ago with the support of Shelby, his staff and Tuscaloosa’s congressional delegation.” A local park named after his wife was one recent Shelby sponsored project, but he is primarily known for “earmarking” more than $100 million for the “revitalization” of downtown Tuscaloosa.
The Washington Post reported: “The project razed four square blocks to build a new parking deck, a park plaza and a federal courthouse. It also repaved streets, buried overhead cables and installed new sidewalks and ornamental lighting. Shelby owns an office building downtown. The street in front of his office will also be made over along with other streets as part of phase two of the project, also funded by his earmarks.”
The $5 million that Shelby secured from the Department of Commerce to match the City’s $4 million in “disaster relief” money doesn’t transform this project into one that is in the public’s interest. The thinking at City Hall was probably that an “impressive” edifice housing the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce’s EDGE “business incubator” will be built on one of the key corridors leading into town ( which is a common route to Bryant-Denny Stadium ). It was also a sweetheart deal for The Chamber which has truly metastasized into the city government.
The HUD funding and the use of the land owned by The Department of Defense is supposed to be contingent on its being used in the public interest. The efforts of the Chamber’s EDGE to “incubate” business thus far has produced less than impressive results that could hardly be described as being in the “public’s interest.” Will a new multimillion facility somehow produce better results? Would not the HUD money have served a better purpose in being spent for affordable housing or some other purpose actually related to storm recovery?
In T-Town pork barrel politics yet survives even when there is talk of a looming, austerity-driven federal government shutdown.