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Six minutes 10 years ago drastically altered the landscape of Alberta.
From wilderness area four miles east of downtown Tuscaloosa, to growing bedroom community for the University of Alabama, home to many of the area’s first chain restaurants, to a shopping and entertainment mecca, what had once been a crown jewel became badly tarnished in the ’70s and beyond, as population growth extended north and south.
McFarland and University malls drained off shopping. Upscale renters moved to newer developments like the Ski Lodge development, off Skyland Boulevard. Rents sank lower, as did the quality of some of Alberta’s renters. Crime rates soared, and with it the stigma that Alberta was not a good place to visit, much less live.
Then in the early 21st century an ambitious $2.5 million streetscaping plan, cleaning up the area, bringing in full-time police presence, re-introducing a visually pleasing aesthetic — the faint echoes of once-splendid Leland Shopping Center mirrored, in later years, mainly by the determinedly blinking neon Moon Winx sign — and pushing landlords to improve and uphold properties, lent the community new polish. With police outreach and other initiatives stemming from Mayor Walt Maddox’s Hope Initiative, crime rates fell 24 percent from 2007 to 2009.
Then came six minutes of a sometimes 1.5-mile-wide EF4 tornado, April 27, 2011, wiping out much of that forward motion. As much as 65 percent of Alberta had been damaged, or destroyed.
Kip Tyner’s vision for the Alberta where he’s lived since birth in 1955, the area he’s represented as a city councilman since 1997, spun backwards. Coming over the bridge into the Alberta of his youth, he recalled, you’d open your senses to an area vividly, colorfully alive, like landing in dazzling Oz after drab, sepia Kansas.
Alberta had been the gateway to Tuscaloosa via Alabama Highway 215/U.S. Highway 11 to Birmingham, before McFarland Boulevard, before the interstate system reached the city. Even into the ’50s and ’60s, Alberta was considered so far out of town, UA football coaching legend Paul W. “Bear” Bryant used to take his teams out to stay at the Moon Winx Lodge, to get them away from the buzz and distractions of a home game weekend.
Upscale neighborhoods built in Alberta, such as Arcadia, Windsor, Claymont and Druid Hills drew the affluent, with UA faculty and staff, a growing young professional class.
“It was where everybody wanted to live,” Tyner said.
In addition to the chains that established their first Tuscaloosa footholds in Alberta —IHOP, Waffle House, Hardee’s and Arby’s among them — 1957 saw establishment of the area’s first modern mall, Leland Shopping Center. Nearby landed Leland Lanes, a leisure-night spot with its bowling alley, skating rink and putt-putt golf.
Adjacent to what’s now Jaycee Park sat one of the area’s two movie theaters; the Skyline Drive-In opened up near Five Points. Alberta blossomed with banks, schools, churches, grocery stores, private homes, shopping, and entertainment. Who needed to travel four miles west for anything?
“Every convenience you wanted was in Alberta,” Tyner said.
The storms of April 27, 2011 rewound that film, sent tornado-torn debris and detritus flying madly backward into a nightmare deconstruction of home. Massive uprooted oaks and elms clawed out gaping cellar-sized wounds. Sharp pitch and earthen smells competed with gas odors from broken pipelines, sending residents fleeing in terror, fearing explosions. Powerlines fell, crackling. Cellphones failed.
Those left homeless, without electricity or information, waded out into the heated late afternoon to take in the extent of the devastation. Alberta Elementary School, constructed in 2000, was gone; fortunately, students and staff had been sent home earlier in the day, due to storm warnings. Six-month old Chastain Manor senior complex was leveled. That’s where Tyner saw dead bodies, and began going into what he calls “total shock.”
He’d gotten his mom and his dog out of their shared office building, across from Alberta Baptist Church, about 30 minutes before the worst. They’d arrived at her home on Durrett Grove just as the jet-engine storm howled in, so deafening they couldn’t make a word even as they could see their mouths moving. Her home suffered $50,000 in damages, but with the help of a loaned generator the next day, gained some power. Tyner’s own place, where he’d been living for 15 years, close to the old Woods Square, didn’t look so bad from the front. But from the back, it resembled a cutaway Barbie house, he said.
With the drawing darkness, a lesser follow-up storm cried in, creating further panic. Everywhere Tyner walked all that sleepless night, people grabbed him, their representative: Where do we go? What do we do?
Eventually the sun peered out, a new day came, and Alberta went to work, as it has since 1909, when J.M. Kicker scrambled through trees and briars to stake out 20 acres over a heavily forested area four miles east of downtown Tuscaloosa.
It rose to the sound of chainsaws and generators roaring, to trucks full of volunteers, helpers pulling into the old Leland center’s parking lot, hastily organized by the city, by folks such as Robin Edgeworth, Don Staley and Mayor Walt Maddox, delivering and distributing water, food, information and other necessities.
In the journey of progress over the last decade, one that’s very much still in motion, that’s how Alberta began again.
It was 1908 when Kicker, namesake of current-day Kicker Road, loaded up his dogs and hog rifle to go squirrel hunting in the wild woods that became Alberta, climbing the Alabama Great Southern Railway Fence because 215 was still just a narrow dirt lane.
In an interview seven decades later with The Tuscaloosa News, Kicker recalled being drawn by the cries of whippoorwills, hoot owls and screech owls, though he later wondered why he ever enjoyed the screeches.
In 1909, Kicker paid $32.50 an acre to build his home there. Just east of where The Highlands now stands there’d been a campsite for tradespeople, or others passing through. Travel for many years was mostly by foot, bicycle, buggy, horse and wagon or train; only rarely by the then-scarce automobiles, over raw roads. Lumber to build the 1913 Alberta Methodist Church had to be floated in by river.
In 1914, Tuscaloosa’s first dime-store owner, Griggsby Bert Wright, named the fledgling community Alberta – not Alberta City – after his wife. In what had previously been known as Holt Junction, by 1920, there were 12 to 15 houses, and three stores. A two-teacher elementary school opened in 1924, and the next year, a consolidated school reported five rooms, four teachers and 103 students.
Alberta building booms arose in the mid- to late-1920s — Gulf States Paper Mill in 1928, and Tuscaloosa Veterans Hospital in 1930 bringing employment to the area — and then again just after World War II, following the contentious annexing. More than 1,600 homes had been constructed by the time of the first annexation consideration, in 1946. Alberta then covered about 2,400 acres, where Tuscaloosa’s corporate limits covered about 3,745 acres.
Though Alberta had electricity, what it didn’t have was public utilities such water and gas. Neither did it have fire and police protection. Still, not every Alberta resident wanted to become part of the Druid City. That 1946 attempt lead to “knock down and drag out public hearings,” longtime Tuscaloosa News political reporter Bob Kyle wrote.
When the annexation passed two years later, Alberta had added more than 6,000 people, and 1,300 acres. Developers such as John D. Leland and Ward McFarland saw potential, and created the shopping center named for the former, who died of a heart attack in December 1956, months before his vision came to fruition.
At its peak, Leland Shopping Center employed 400, the city’s second-biggest private employer after the BF Goodrich plant. Leland Shopping Center covered three city blocks, with 75,000 square feet of retail space, and parking for 575 cars. Its success drew Pizitz Alberta, from the flagship department store in Birmingham, a quarter-million dollar building with 12,000 square feet for 22 departments, air-conditioned with walnut paneling, terrazzo and carpeted floors, according to The Tuscaloosa News stories from that year.
In the ‘70s, major employers in Alberta included Dixie Steel, Willcut Block Co. and Montgomery Woodworks. Alberta was home to the city’s first Masonic Temple, and to Tuscaloosa County’s first lighted baseball fields, at what later became known as Jaycee Park, where the West Alabama State Fair was held many years.
Kicker had a saying about the place he’d help found: “From woods to goods.” Fellow longtime resident Pat Corn, in a 1976 story with The Tuscaloosa News, said simply: “Alberta has it all.”
Hard and better times
“When I first came on the City Council, Alberta wasn’t doing too well,” Tyner said. “It had once been the best place to live, but over time, it had become a horrific place.
“There was just no one there to stop the bleeding.”
As much as 7 percent of the city’s crime rate could be pinpointed to the very block where now stands The Tuscaloosa Gateway Innovation and Discovery Center, with its digital library and resource center, built in 2016.
Just out Gateway’s back windows stands the 2015 Alberta School of Performing Arts, arising from the ashes of the old elementary school, the magnet school, and area’s first arts school. Nearby stands a fountain flowing with music and color, encircled by palm trees. On the west of Gateway stands a Tuscaloosa Police Department station.
Just a short walk away is the Tuscaloosa Tennis Center, also opened in 2015, with a clubhouse, three indoor courts, four outdoor hard courts, and six outdoor clay courts, as well as four beginner courts for children.
Features such as those, and other forward-looking post-storm silver linings, helped land the area’s latest jewel. In what’s considered a coup along the lines of the first Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant, the worldwide engineering and consulting firm SWJ Technology recently chose Alberta for its new North America headquarters, placing its 7,000-square foot, $2 million facility here over also-considered sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Greenville, South Carolina, each previously considered the frontrunners.
This first phase will employ more than 100 engineers and others, in high-paying jobs. Tyner’s heard a starting salary could be $80,000 a year. It’s the kind of high-tech, high-paying jobs magnet Innovate Tuscaloosa and others talk up, crucial to landing and keeping an educated populace. UA engineering school’s best and brightest won’t have to move away post-graduation, to find the right jobs.
SWJ CEO Wolfgang Kneer, an in interview with The Tuscaloosa News, said “It was a close race, but we’re very happy to have committed to Tuscaloosa because, so far, the support and the opportunities that we see here are tremendous.”
While in early negotiations, the CEO told Tyner he thinks the clean, fresh look of the Gateway area reminds him of parts of Germany, and shared that he had hoped not to have to move away.
“People don’t realize Germans look at things differently,” Tyner said. When Tuscaloosa landed MBUSI over much heavily favored locations, the German officials spoke glowing of the beauty of the land, and the UA campus. and especially its Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra, with its Moody Music Building facilities, including 1,000-seat concert venue.
Kneer, who came to Tuscaloosa with Mercedes, has two children, one of them a state champion tennis player.
“Wolfgang now wants to become Mr. Alberta, he wants to attract more restaurants, he wants it to be more upscale,” Tyner said.
The new SWJ’s built atop what Tyner calls “one of the best turnarounds” on Juanita Drive, once ground zero for Alberta crime.
“One of the craziest things that came from the tornado, we had an apartment building with one of the highest crime rates, that’s now home to SWJ,” he said.
After the 2001 streetscaping project, pride began returning to Alberta, he said. Storefronts such as Kirkland’s removed barbed wire once wrapped around their facilities. Churches, the KFC, the Shell station all put up new facades, added new signage. With TPD presence, and serious discussions with landlords about bringing properties up to snuff, and keeping them maintained, the crime rates continued to fall.
On April 28, 2011, much of that new Alberta that Tyner, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, from Tuscaloosa, and the Tuscaloosa City Council had worked to create was wreckage, to be cut up, swept and piled up, and dragged away, while search and rescue efforts continued.
Tyner suffered severe health and personal setbacks, and dealt with those alongside the red tape of tracking down and negotiating with property owners, delving into federal emergency money, and just as things seemed to be rolling, the state of Alabama decided that was the time to shut the bridge into Alberta down for safety repairs.
“Certainly no new business was going to wait, when there’d be no university students coming in to the area,” Tyner said. “It was 14 months of nothing.”
One major setback was a plan for an Amtrak facility falling through, involving two years of negotiations. That was a blow, losing what could have been an anchor for satellite businesses.
But again on the upswing, a new upscale service station run by Chevron will be breaking ground in a few weeks, a $4 million investment with 14 bays, chargers for electric cars, and a mega market like a small supermarket contained within.
Another project dream that seemed to be making headway until the COVID-19 pandemic hit was plans to make Alberta an art district, building atop the Leland center ruins that once saw much of the area’s outside-the-home enjoyable activities. It could be an incubator for art and artists, with stages and performances and work space, something like Huntsville’s Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment district, a converted factory full of 152 working studios for more than 200 artists and makers, seven galleries, a theater, community garden and performance venues.
“I get so emotional, get very passionate about anybody who tries to do anything bad to Alberta, or say something bad about Alberta. They don’t realize how difficult it’s been. The city can’t just snap its fingers and make things happen.
“While of course even one life lost was too many, I can’t help thinking of the silver lining: I think that the tornado gave us a second chance. An open landscape to reimagine and recreate the area.”
Category: Restaurant News