Tuscaloosa mayor says UA’s growth good for city: Tuscaloosa AL News, 1/14/07

By Jason Morton

Although they say they don’t know the University of Alabama’s ultimate vision for The Strip, city leaders trust that UA’s president has the best intentions for the university - and by extension, the city.

“The university has a strong interest in not only The Strip, but its entire campus," said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. “The city has a vested interest in that because the university is a large, economic engine that provides thousands of jobs and nearly a billion dollars of economic impact in our metro area.

“The city and university, by that nature, have a very close relationship."

Maddox said Tuscaloosa and UA officials meet regularly to discuss public safety and commercial growth, among other issues, to coordinate efforts.

The city isn’t concerned that UA’s real estate purchases could hurt the city’s bottom line, Maddox said.

“I think it just depends on how much property is taken and how it’s redeveloped and whether that redeveloped property becomes public or private," he said. “But the university has been extremely successful in recruiting students, and that has a major impact on revenue collections.

“There’s a short-term impact and a long-term impact, and only time’s going to tell on both."

Maddox pointed to UA President Robert E. Witt’s ambitious plan to attract more students and said that alone could offset any loss in property taxes if the school bought properties on The Strip.

He said that more students would mean an economic impact for the city that includes more housing and sales taxes.

“We’re seeing that growth in the downtown, west Tuscaloosa and Alberta areas in terms of housing real estate," he said.

And although state law exempts any land owned by the university from property taxes, the buildings and other improvements can be assessed for tax purposes.

For example, UA owns the land where Publix Super Market is located. In 2006, Publix paid about $6,800 in property taxes to the city, and more than $26,000 to the state, county, school and city.

However, if the university were to buy a property and build a parking deck, those property taxes would be lost.

David Jones, owner of the Alabama Book Store, said UA officials are interested in the block that includes his store, Campus Party Store and Gallette’s bar for a possible parking deck. Those properties paid nearly $1,700 in property taxes to the city, and $6,400 to the state, county, school and city.

While both Maddox and City Councilman Lee Garrison, who represents the district that includes the university, said they don’t know the University’s long-term goals, they do want The Strip to maintain its current mixed-use designation.

Both officials also said the city has not been approached by university officials requesting the city’s aid in acquiring property through powers of eminent domain. The university has its own ability to use eminent domain, but the rules regarding colleges and city governments differ slightly.

Both entities can take land by eminent domain if it’s intended for public use, such as the city has done with buildings in its Downtown Urban Renewal and Redevelopment Plan, where a parking deck, city park and new federal courthouse are planned for construction.

“I would only vote to condemn a structure on The Strip - or anywhere else in the city - if the intent is for a public purpose," Garrison said, “not as a conduit for private development."

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