Spotlight on Tuscaloosa County: Community Development

Tuscaloosa County and the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport are making improvements to parks, housing, schools and the airport, among others

Downtown Tuscaloosa. Photo by Lance Holloway.

One of the biggest developments underway in Tuscaloosa County is Saban Center, part of the city’s Elevate Tuscaloosa Initiative to bring STEM programs together with theater, literature, outdoor recreation and interactive learning for children and families in Tuscaloosa and the surrounding area.

“The addition of the Saban Center to downtown Tuscaloosa will be a game-changer for generations to come,” says Kyle South, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. “The Saban Center will offer STEAM learning opportunities to students, teachers and parents.”

The new facility will bring together two beloved Tuscaloosa institutions under one roof. The Children’s Hands-On Museum of Tuscaloosa will be reimagined as Ignite, an interactive platform for STEAM-based learning for people of all ages, and the Tuscaloosa Children’s Theatre (TCT) will have more space for performances and workshops at its new location in the center.

In addition to community partnerships with TCT and Ignite, the first-of-its kind STEAM campus has entered into public-private educational partnerships across the state, including with the Alabama State Department of Education, Alabama Power Foundation, Coca-Cola Bottling Company United, Mercedes-Benz, Parker Towing and the University of Alabama.

In October 2022, the City of Tuscaloosa cut the ribbon for River District Park. Located next to the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater along the Black Warrior River, the park includes green space, river-viewing areas, a plaza and an outdoor stage. It also will serve as an outdoor extension of the Saban Center.

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Randall Family Park.

Last summer, the Randall Family Park and Trailhead at the Northern Riverwalk in Tuscaloosa officially opened, with playground, recreational path, pavilion and parking.

And in May of this year, the City of Tuscaloosa broke ground on the Western Riverwalk project that will create a shared-use riverwalk stretching from the Oliver Lock and Dam more than 4,000 feet to the east and expand riverfront access west of the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. The project is funded by Elevate Tuscaloosa in conjunction with a $15 million BUILD grant awarded to the city by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Eventually the Western Riverwalk will connect to the current Riverwalk, once the third phase of a project to improve Martin Luther King Boulevard and Jack Warner Parkway and ultimately connect West Tuscaloosa to downtown is complete. Phase two of the project began in May and includes a four-lane roadway divided by a landscaped median, six-foot sidewalks on the north side from Greensboro Avenue to 21st Avenue, decorative roadway and pedestrian lighting, landscaping and irrigation and underground utilities.

Last fall, the Tuscaloosa National Airport received approval from the city council for a $7 million construction contract to expand its runway to accommodate larger planes as part of an effort to bring commercial air service back to the airport. That development came on the heels of a $1 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant for reconstruction and resurfacing projects on taxiways and aprons.

Reestablishing scheduled commercial service at the airport is a top priority for the Chamber and the business community, says South. “The need is much greater than just seven home football games per year. We are proud of the improvements that have taken place already and are excited about what the future holds for our airport.”

In May, Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa announced plans to partner with a local home builder to develop more than 30 new affordable homes in the city’s West End. The development is part of Operation Transformation, a broader plan to combat the affordable housing crisis, with 75 new homes through a $6 million investment.

In January, Hillhouse Condos announced the pre-sale of 34 luxury condos. The $54 million development offers one-, two- and three-bedroom floorplans, all with balconies that overlook Lake Tuscaloosa, and is expected to be completed by July 2024.

In September 2022, the Tuscaloosa City Council approved construction plans for a $34 million, six-story, mixed-use apartment complex on downtown Fourth Street that will include 14,000 square feet of commercial or office space on the first floor and 90 apartment units on the top five floors.

“Tuscaloosa is a city on the rise, where innovation and community spirit converge to create a vibrant and promising future,” says South.

Downtown Northport.

Neighboring Northport is moving forward on three major recreational projects.

In March, the city offered a first glimpse at preliminary plans for an 11-acre water park. Proposed features include waterslides, a spray park, a splash pad, a wave pool and a lazy river along with cabanas, a concession area and an area for food trucks.

In April, the Northport City Council approved a planned contract with Dirt Coaster to design mountain bike trails for a new outdoor adventure park. It’s the first part of the multi-phase project. Once complete, the park will include cabins, a small lake, mountain bike and hiking paths, zip lines and a retreat center.

In February, the city bought some 40 acres of undeveloped land next to Kentuck Park to develop the Kentuck Sports Complex. It will include an outdoor amphitheater; softball and baseball fields; and tennis, pickleball, volleyball and basketball courts.

“Tuscaloosa and Northport have embraced the experience economy,” says South. “They are both investing in capital projects and amenities that will be utilized by our current residents and will be a draw for guests and future residents relocating from outside our community.”

The county has two public school systems, Tuscaloosa City Schools and Tuscaloosa County Schools. Together they have 58 schools and serve nearly 30,000 students.

This year the Tuscaloosa City School District was named a Model School District, and four of its schools — Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, Eastwood Middle School, Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools Elementary and Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools Middle — were named 2023 Model Schools by the International Center for Leadership in Education.

Skyland Elementary and Oakdale Elementary received the “2023 State School of Character” designation from in recognition of their focus on character development. Tuscaloosa Magnet Elementary, Tuscaloosa Magnet Middle and Westlawn Middle received the designation in 2022. Three other district schools earned honorable mention in the 2023 competition.

Construction is set to begin this fall on a $3.2 million, 8,400-square-foot gym at The Alberta School of Fine Arts. The new facility will have full-size courts and a 200-seat capacity and is expected to be completed by July 2024.

Plans are underway to improve the courtyard at Central Elementary School to include a more landscaped appearance, shade structures and picnic tables. The project is part of the system’s five-year capital plan, a $157,900 project that will be funded through a combination of grants and federal ESSR funds.

This article appears in the September 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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