Tuscaloosa implements plan to move from retail to experienced-based economy.
Elevate Tuscaloosa is a city-wide initiative to embrace the economic paradigm shift and move Tuscaloosa from a retail-based economy to an experience-based economy. Mayor Walt Maddox initiated the change, which is focused on elevating the arts, connectivity, parks and recreation, and education.
What necessitated the shift? Maddox attributes the need to four factors: the city’s decrease in retail sales, the preference of millennials for experiences, workforce needs to fill the jobs of the future, and hitting the peak enrollment for students at the university.
“We have to move from recruiting students to retaining them,” Maddox explains. “Right now, we’re only retaining 10%.”
Another driving force of the program is to increase tourism. “Eight weeks a year we’re Alabama’s largest city,” Maddox says. “We have a desire to grow that.”
The initiative includes improvements to the airport, an expanded transit system, road improvements, a water recreation and trail experience, upgrades to the Bama Theatre, an athletic and events complex, tennis center, senior center, additional river walks, improved park systems, and an improved educational system.
The initiative will cost $60 million, be completed by 2025, and is funded by a 1% sales tax increase.
“You don’t gain job security by raising people’s taxes,” Maddox says, “but it was the right thing to do.” The decision came after reviewing the city’s data and realizing that while Tuscaloosa was receiving 2% of sales tax revenue, their competitor cities were receiving 4-5%.
Maddox credits the Chamber for the success of passing the initiative. “When the Chamber gave the stamp of approval, it took the air out of the room and ultimately got us across the finish line,” he says. The initiative was passed earlier this year with a 5-2 vote of the city council.
Tuscaloosa is currently implementing the plan and has put together an advisory council to advise the mayor and city council.
How has the response been? “Elevate Tuscaloosa has pretty broad support across all sectors and demographics,” Maddox says. “Now road construction, that’s another matter!”
Chamber President Matt McCormick says there are two main reasons the delegation was interested in learning more about Elevate Tuscaloosa. “One is their comprehensive, holistic approach to this plan related to projects that move the entire community forward. The other is how they put together, funded, and are implementing the plan.”
“What Tuscaloosa has done shows us how to be a forward-thinking community and not let your fear from tax increases or other things get in the way of the future,” says Susan Hart, vice president of Huebert Builders, Inc. “It’s inspiring.”
Maddox ended the session by encouraging the delegation. “If the leaders of a community collectively agree to move from Point A to Point B, it will get done.”