OPINION: Proposed Tuscaloosa property deal is ill advised


Nathan Polk, Staff Columnist

On July 30th, the Tuscaloosa City Council tabled two resolutions authorizing Mayor Maddox to purchase 7.3 acres on McFarland Boulevard and Rice Mine Road from Rice Mine Development, LLC for $7,000,000 and the former McFarland Mall on Skyland Boulevard for $21,000,000 from Stan Pate’s Encore Tuscaloosa, LLC. The Council will create a funding proposal before their September 17th meeting to detail how the property will be paid for and used.

On its face, these resolutions indicate positive progression. Anyone who’s driven down Skyland Boulevard has seen the dilapidated plaza constituting much of the deal. A government project like this could contribute to needed economic revitalization on the south side. Mayor Maddox is staying true to the core beliefs of his administration by pursuing this project: “Comprehensive Planning will be essential to…promoting economic development and ensuring a high quality of life.” So far, so good.

However, this project is not necessary, affordable, or in the best interest of the people of Tuscaloosa.

ABC 33/40’s Elizabeth Lane reported before the council meeting that District Seven Councilwoman Sonya McKinstry suggested building a “public safety facility” on the larger lot and “selling the mall’s outer parcels to developers [to] make some money back.” Two potentialities are in view, it seems, for the City Council. They either intend to directly manage the distribution of the land for development, or they intend to allocate it for municipal use. Regarding the first, I contend that the same goal of economic growth could be accomplished by direct sales to developers without the city’s interference. This is an unnecessary attempt to directly control the business environment of Tuscaloosa at the taxpayers’ expense. No, private enterprise hasn’t developed the properties thus far. However, one man’s failure to succeed is not sufficient justification to redefine government’s role in business affairs. Regarding the second, I contend that municipal entities on these properties would not appropriately address the needs of the south side of Tuscaloosa. Business brings jobs, jobs bring prosperity, prosperity encourages expenditure, expenditure increases the tax base, and the process repeats. Parks, public safety buildings, or other municipal entities are important, but these won’t solve systemic problems in Tuscaloosa. This project is categorically unnecessary for the city to undertake.

Where is Tuscaloosa going to find $28,000,000 dollars? According to McKinstry, they’ll find it through debt and overspending. Tuscaloosa’s budget has no published discretionary spending fund. Therefore, reserves must be utilized, or municipal bonds must be issued. On the point of municipal bonds, as suggested by Councilwoman McKinstry, I would question comparative affordability. When comparing massive debt obligation from a bond issuance to an increased tax base due the influx of jobs and expenditure from private development, the second is more advantageous to the city every time. While Tuscaloosa could theoretically fund these transactions from a bond issuance, this isn’t the most prudent and cost-effective decision when weighing both options. The government is tasked with conservatively managing taxpayer dollars, not prospecting. Without tapping into reserves or creating a large debt obligation for the people of Tuscaloosa, I don’t see how Tuscaloosa can responsibly pay for the project.

Community development is essential for Tuscaloosa’s advancement. However, direct government activity in business hurts the free market. I commend city leaders for their desire to invest in this city. I love Tuscaloosa and am thankful for their efforts. Yet I don’t think their approach is the best way to develop these properties because government participation in this deal is unnecessary, expensive, and burdensome to the taxpaying citizen. Good options aren’t always the best options, and these proposals are clear examples of that reality.