T-Town: A One Elephant Town?

Bicentinnial Minerva Statue

The University of Alabama bestowed a statue of the Goddess Minerva to the citizens of Tuscaloosa in commemoration of the city’s Bicentennial Celebration on December 13, 2019.

As soon as the unveiling of the statue at the University’s Manderson Landing, if not beforehand, there were criticisms of the sculpture. Some citizens complained about the University’s choice of the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, in spite of the fact that she adorns the institutional seal of the University. Many people asked why a statue of Chief Tuskaloosa, the city’s namesake, wasn’t erected instead of one of a pagan goddess. Some would have doubtlessly preferred a statue of Jesus or even the football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.  However most people appreciated Caleb O’Connor’s beautifully executed sculpture that was cast in Italy. The walkway  around the statue, designed by Craig R. Wedderspoon, replicated the route of the Black Warrior and was replete with historical milestones of Tuscaloosa’s history.

People who live in Tuscaloosa are acutely aware of the importance of the University and the impact that it has on their daily lives. Tuscaloosa is a “one elephant town.” An elephant is the mascot of the University’s sports teams. The Crimson Tide’s football team perennially wins championships. When a football game is played in Tuscaloosa the town’s population often doubles in size. The University is a major employer and contributes greatly to Tuscaloosa’s cultural life.

Of course, there are complaints about the University, which largely center around the bad behavior of some of its students. A civic group Tuscaloosa Neighbors Together did a survey in 2012 of opinion about living with students. As Jason Morton reported in The Tuscaloosa News, there was an “overwhelming opposition to any kind of student housing within a neighborhood.” Many of the problems that citizens have had with students can be attributed to underaged drinking.

The Historic District in Tuscaloosa has been steadily encroached upon by the University’s student population as the University has grown in size. For over a decade there have been complaints about vandalism, home invasions and property damage by students. Kelly Fitts, president of the Original City Association, once opined in The Tuscaloosa News about the “undesirable late-night activity and crime perpetrated by intoxicated patrons” of drinking establishments that are located in close proximity to the Historic District:

Some of these heavily intoxicated people, many of them young women, wander into our yards and, thinking they are home, try to enter our houses. It is a very dangerous situation that, left unaddressed, will result in dire consequences for the city and the university should someone lose their life.

The City of Tuscaloosa’s wants to create an “experience economy” through its Elevate initiative and the concomitant local sales tax increase. Speaking about the Elevate program at a Council committee meeting, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said:

I tell my staff all the time that I want us to dominate. What I mean is that I want to put into place the investments that will take this community to the next level. That’s why we passed Elevate.

It was never about the status quo Tuscaloosa. When you do something like this you either go bold or go home and we’ve decided to go bold as a community.

We have a sacred responsibility to not let this moment pass us by and to do something significant with it.

Mayor Maddox has raised the possibility of adding public safety fees, in addition to infrastructure fees, that developers must pay to build mega student complexes. He has recognized that there is a need to “slow” the development of student housing. Public safety concerns were heightened by a recent shooting that occurred at a bar located near the University campus. But it was hardly the only such incident at a student bar in Tuscaloosa that has occurred involving gun violence.

Complicating problems associated with student bars is the widespread practice of many drinking establishments serving liquor to underaged students. Most University students are below the legal age of 21 for alcohol sales. The University, according to College Factual‘s “The University of Alabama Student Age Diversity Breakdown”, has 34.5% of its nearly forty thousand students in the 18-19 age group and 30.9% in the 20-21 age group. There have even been complaints about local minors, aged 14-17, hanging out around college bars at night.

The City of Tuscaloosa instituted a curfew on minors because of such concerns. Individuals below the age of eighteen must be off the street after 10 p.m. on any Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday until 6 a.m. the following day and from 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 6 a.m. the following day.

Over 900 University students are under the age of eighteen. The city’s curfew ordinance excludes minors who attend the University. But law enforcement officers are taxed with the task of how to enforce the curfew. Should they stop and question any person who appears to be below the age of eighteen? Many University students who are older than eighteen could certainly be mistaken for being eighteen or younger. Many students who are younger than twenty-one frequent establishments that serve alcohol.

The City of Tuscaloosa is investing a great deal of money in its Elevate program. It also will be issuing bonds to pay for projects. In the $503 million Elevate budget the actual amount allocated for projects is just over $250 million. The mayor has also proposed bond issues totaling $143.5 million for 11 of the largest projects. That will result in $138 million of the $503 million budget being spent not on actual projects but on debt finance charges.

One of the Elevate projects The Saban Center, will create a learning center on the Black Warrior River that brings together the Children’s Hands-On Museum, Tuscaloosa Public Library and Tuscaloosa Children’s Theater. The University’s football coach Nick Saban made a $1.25 million contribution to the project.

To help pay for public safety perhaps the City of Tuscaloosa could do as Chicago has done. Chicago has doubled the tax on food and drink served at restaurants and bars by raising it a quarter-percentage point.

Enforcing underaged drinking laws with electronic ID verification (as Oxford, Mississippi has done) may well reduce the popularity of the establishments located near the University that routinely serve minors. Such enforcement would require a good deal of diligence by the police. The city has had a hard time recruiting police officers. Revenue dedicated to public safety could be be used to increase salaries and benefits, in order to attract more people who would be willing to serve in law enforcement and to retain existing officers. The City of Tuscaloosa could also arrange with the University of Alabama to have a joint task force to enforce underaged drinking laws.

To truly “elevate” Tuscaloosa and make it a better place to live will require more diligent public safely measures. Investing in law enforcement is at least as important as building wonderful projects such as the Saban Center. Such measures may reduce the tensions that exist between the citizens of Tuscaloosa and students at the University. When that happens Tuscaloosa can be proud of being, at least in part, A One Elephant Town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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