Two decades ago in Tuscaloosa, “People would say there were two places you didn’t go,” Brendan Moore, chief operations officer for the City of Tuscaloosa, recalls. “That was downtown and the riverfront. But both have been revitalized in the last 15 years or so.”
2023 is an anniversary year, of sorts, for the Riverwalk. 2003 is the year the master plan for the area came out, with an updated plan coming out in 2018. Those plans have come to life, so far, in the form of nearly six miles of paved trails, recreation, restaurants, live music and millions of dollars of nearby economic development.
“It’s a super busy place,” says Katy Beth Jackson, the city’s director of operations.
And that’s exactly what those behind Riverwalk, including Mayor Walt Maddox, had in mind. Early phases through 2017 included 4.5 miles of walkways, along with construction of an amphitheater in 2011 and the River Market in 2012.
Another half-mile was added last year with the Randall Family Park and Trailhead at the Northern Riverwalk, and the Western Riverwalk, which is under construction now and will soon add about another three-quarters of a mile.
“It’s a vibrant area, with a tremendous amount of private investment, recreation and connectivity to campus,” Moore says. “From a demographic standpoint, it gets actively utilized by everyone. People who live here love it, and visitors use it, too.”
And economic development? It’s a huge driver in that area, too.
“There is private investment, public investment and some collaborations where they can play off of each other,” Moore says. “You can go down there and have a meal and a lovely stroll at sunset with your family, or if you’re an active jogger, you can go the full length multiple ways and get some good exercise out of that.”
The Riverwalk itself features paved pathways along the Black Warrior River marked for walkers and bikers. A variety of dog-friendly parks are located throughout the trail, and there are benches and gazebos throughout the area, too. There’s a playground near the public library and a splash pad at the Bama Belle dock.
Hotels and restaurants surround the Riverwalk, as well as attractions including the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, which brings top-tier music acts to the city; the River Market, an event space and farmers’ market; and the new Saban Center, a STEAM campus that celebrates science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
The Riverwalk’s location is a draw for these and other groups, Moore says.
“It’s a key location, recognizing its proximity to both downtown and campus,” he says.
And there’s more to come. The 2018 update to the master plan includes plans for 21 miles of pathways.
“The return on investment is high from the standpoint of community synergy, private-sector investments and quality of life,” Moore says. “That’s why it has had so much success and continues to expand, because people in all parts of the community want more of it and want it to be longer and better and have more components to it.”
Moore says he’s visiting the Riverwalk every week to visit a park or go to the farmers’ market. Jackson walks with a friend most Saturdays on the Riverwalk. And they’re far from the only visitors.
“People say it a lot, but this truly is something for everybody,” Moore says. “It doesn’t matter if you want to just go sit and enjoy a view, go for a jog, get a cup of coffee, get ice cream, go to the farmers’ market, listen to live music,” he says. “Really and truly, depending on what you’re interested in, there’s something for you to do along the Riverwalk.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama, based in Birmingham.
This article appears in the September 2023 issue of Business Alabama.