Public Spaces as Economic Foundations

Huntsville and Tuscaloosa are making investments in public spaces that they consider essential to their economic health.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox at one of the city’s riverfront businesses. Photo by Vasha Hunt

For 20 years, Dennis Madsen lived in Atlanta and saw the city sprawl its way to misery. Cars and construction were everywhere, often overwhelming the few relaxing public spaces that remained.

“I watched that growth just get worse and worse incrementally, until you finally looked around and said, ‘It’s almost unlivable here,’” Madsen recalls.

Madsen is determined that the same thing will not happen to rapidly growing Huntsville, where he now works as the city’s manager of urban and long-range planning. The key, he says, is to combine financial support from the public/government with private-sector investment, creating a partnership that promotes both quality of life and economic development.

It is a formula that increasingly is being employed in cities throughout the nation, as many young professionals choose the community over their career when determining where to live, and not the other way around.

As Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox puts it, “It is incumbent upon us to provide our constituents with a first-class quality of life. Cities that build that type of community will have the advantage moving forward into the 2020s.”

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Here’s a look at recent ways that both Tuscaloosa and Huntsville are making significant investments in themselves and their residents.

Maddox and Brendan Moore at the Riverwalk, which will be expanded from its present five miles to six on the south side of the Black Warrior with a second trail added on the north side, under plans for Elevate Tuscaloosa. Photo by Vasha Hunt

Elevate Tuscaloosa

Last April, Tuscaloosa officials approved a 1 percent sales tax increase to fund more than $500 million in projects, including several involving area parks, recreation and public spaces. Dubbed Elevate Tuscaloosa, the use of these funds is overseen by a 30-person, volunteer advisory group consisting of residents and business owners.

“We’re making sure that when we make an investment in public spaces, it’s validated by the community as something they want to see happen,” says Brendan Moore, executive director of urban development for the city of Tuscaloosa. “So we’re getting feedback from the community about what will add to their quality of life. And in working with industry and businesses, one of the big things we hear from a recruitment and retention standpoint is the importance of having quality public spaces.”

The most prominent public space in Tuscaloosa is the paved Riverwalk trail that extends for nearly five miles from downtown along the southern bank of the Black Warrior River. The Elevate project includes plans to expand the existing trail by another mile and create a second trail along the northern side of the river.

Moore says the original Riverwalk cost approximately $5 million to create but has resulted in more than $100 million in private investment around it over the past decade. He says the planned expansion will go past property that currently is vacant, including a 120-acre former golf course, which should prompt additional private investment on that land.

“We see it as a huge economic development tool to help stimulate growth along our riverfront,” Moore says. “At the same time, it enhances the quality of life of our residents.”

The Elevate projects also include the construction of a $4 million, fully accessible playground in Sokol Park that will be the largest of its kind in the state. In addition, a series of hiking, biking and water recreation trails will be established on more than 2,000 acres of land around Lake Harris and Lake Nicol, an enhancement Maddox calls “one of the hidden gems of these plans.”

Maddox says the economic goal of all this is two-fold: to encourage more University of Alabama students to remain in Tuscaloosa after graduation and to entice new businesses to the area, including foreign companies related to the automotive industry.

“Less than 10 percent of students who graduate from the University stay in Tuscaloosa County. We want them to build their business here,” Maddox says. “And then many of our European partners come from communities where outdoor recreation is essential. We want to be one of those communities that can offer outdoor recreation at an elite level.

“We’re in an experience-based economy these days, where people are likely to spend more on experiences than on retail goods. So creating those experiences — in this case using outdoor recreation for things like the Riverwalk and the Harris-Nicol trails — gives us an advantage. We want to leverage that advantage for our citizens and to recruit economically and grow the city.”

Views of the Chapman Mountain Nature Preserve in Huntsville. Photos courtesy of the Land Trust of North Alabama

Huntsvilles Chapman Mountain

Nearly 20 years ago, The Land Trust of North Alabama began acquiring property on Chapman Mountain, located just to the northeast of downtown Huntsville. In 2018, The Land Trust opened the 371-acre Chapman Mountain Nature Preserve complete with hiking and biking trails, campsites, a disc golf course and a solar-power educational pavilion.

The preserve has been so popular that when the opportunity arose in 2019 to purchase an additional 86 acres on the mountain, both the city of Huntsville and area residents pitched in to make it happen. The city committed $100,000 to the project, while The Land Trust raised $80,000 through individual donors.

“It’s another step in the broader goal of improving access to recreation opportunities for folks throughout Huntsville,” Madsen says. “North Huntsville doesn’t have as much in terms of established greenways, so this is a gap we can fill in. We see this partnership with The Land Trust as a great amenity and success story for the people of Huntsville.”

Along with the public and city funds, the Land Trust received several corporate donations for the creation of the educational pavilion and a grant from REI to build a new trail, as well as an agreement with Alabama A&M University to extend another trail through property the university owns.

“It’s an amazing community effort, with everybody coming together to make this happen,” says Marie Bostick, executive director of the Land Trust of North Alabama. “That partnership is such a big thing, with the community embracing this and understanding how valuable it is.”

It’s valuable from a quality-of-life standpoint, as well as an economic standpoint. Madsen says that having green-spaces and other relaxing public areas has become an essential ingredient to any city’s long-term economic development. He points out that even Atlanta has embraced this approach in recent years, with the opening of the 22-mile Atlanta Beltline trail that circles several of the city’s in-town neighborhoods.

“When we want to attract industry or workers, knowing that there are these types of amenities is incredibly important,” Madsen says. “Roads and schools are important, but what can put you over the top are the things that add value to your community, like recreational opportunities.”

Or as Bostick says, “A lot of people move to Huntsville because of the natural beauty and the character of the community. If you lose that, you lose the draw. So we’ve made an effort to preserve these special places.”

Cary Estes and Vasha Hunt are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Estes is based in Birmingham and Hunt in Tuscaloosa.

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