Homecoming In A One Elephant Town

Billboars at night

Is the City of Tuscaloosa only an annex of the University of Alabama? Certainly during the University’s Homecoming weekend, with downtown store front windows painted in Crimson Tide splendor and a big parade on the city’s main thoroughfare University Boulevard, it might appear as such.

In the last municipal election votes by members of The Machine at the University may have decided who was elected to chair the School Board and who represented District 4 on the school board. Reports of inducements for students to vote involving free alcohol and rides in limousines to the polls were found in state and national newspapers. There were even billboards critical of the student vote.

As far as the City Council race was concerned, District 4 candidate Matt Calderone, who recently graduated from the University and who had strong ties to The Machine, was unopposed. After all District 4 was recently redrawn so that the potential student vote was greater than that of permanent residents. But many people were completely dumbfounded that students would turn out to vote in the school board race.

There has been concern in Tuscaloosa about all of the new student housing being built. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox established a Student Housing Task Force ( SHTF ) to make recommendations on student housing.  Many of the new housing projects in the downtown area are either going to be student housing or largely occupied by students. Student housing is essentially for itinerants. Most students don’t even live in Tuscaloosa on a year round basis.

An idea that found agreement among the SHTF  members was coordinating the City’s comprehensive development plan with that of the University’s.  One might wonder about what sort of role would be played by the University Trustees in Tuscaloosa’s planning. Would it be limited to only student housing?

A resolution was passed at a meeting of the SHTF that essentially said: The City should immediately initiate an update to its comprehensive plan and coordinate its revisions with the University’s master plan.  It was also suggested that the City also hire the same consultants that do the planning for the University.

Among the advocates for student housing in the downtown area there is a mantra that student “heads-in-beds” will result in more retail business in the downtown.  Commercial or retail space is required in most student ( or other types ) of new housing projects. Will new retail stores be supported by students living in the downtown? There are many vacant storefronts in downtown buildings, including empty spaces at the Tuscaloosa Intermodal Facility. When all of the new housing is built  there will be even more retail/commercial spaces.

That all may depend on student purchasing patterns. One commodity that has a definite student market is alcohol. Students flock to the downtown bars in the evening from Thursday to Saturday.  Parking in the downtown area is scarce in the evening on these long-weekends. The Intermodal Facility apparently has yet to be discovered by many students.

Students are somewhat tethered to to the Dining Dollars program at the University. All undergraduate students are automatically charged a fee for the program. Many students only patronize places that accept the Bama Dollars. Alcoholic beverages and snack foods that accompany alcohol use are the most commonly purchased items at grocery stores.  However supplies for outdoor grilling are popular. Many students use the dining halls on campus or restaurants rather than cook.

As far as clothing and other purchases by students are concerned it can’t be said with any certainty how much is bought locally. Chances are that many students shop in their hometowns before arriving on campus.

It’s virtually a religious belief in Tuscaloosa that the University is good for the local economy.  But it might be asked, “If Tuscaloosa were in a dry county would there be much of an impact from student purchases?”

Local elections are affected by the University’s “Machine” vote and city planning has allowed an obvious oversupply of student housing to be built. Although students weren’t viewed favorably before the last election they are now held, rightly or wrongly, in even lower esteem.

Tuscaloosa seems to increasingly to have become a “one-horse” ( or one elephant town ) town. Many residents probably like it that way. When the downtown area becomes even more saturated with students will there finally be a tipping point in public opinion? As far as the local political establishment is concerned however the opinion of permanent residents seems to little matter.


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