Over the past decade, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) has directed more than $100 million in federal earmarks to transform Tuscaloosa’s core into a place that local officials say benefits everyone who lives, works and plays in the area.
Shelby himself owns an office building amid the reconstruction — a tidy, 7,800-square-foot, one-story brick structure with black shutters and a small portico at 2210 Eighth St. Built in 1963, it’s now home to Shelby’s Tuscaloosa Title Company and his nephew’s law firm.
In an interview, Shelby said there is no conflict between his property and the nearby revitalization project. Under congressional ethics rules, spending like this is permitted as long as the primary purpose is not to benefit the financial interests of only lawmakers or a limited class of people connected to them.
“I’m open about it; I have nothing to hide. I make no money out of it and don’t want to,” Shelby said. “Somebody is going to appropriate the money, and you want to do it for the right reason, whether it is defense or whether it is urban renewal in my home town.”
Talk of revitalizing downtown began more than a decade ago with a push by Shelby and the city to replace a run-down federal courthouse and anchor a revitalization project. In 2002, he took the first steps toward securing millions in earmarks to go toward studies that would jump-start the project.
“It’s a project to take land downtown, about seven or eight blocks, and tear them down and revitalize that,” Shelby told the Tuscaloosa News that year. “We’ve got the city working on a plan.”
By last year, the first phase was done.
One block over from Shelby’s building sits a four-level red-brick parking garage built with about $10 million in his earmarks and about $2.5 million in local money. Stretching east from the garage — and around the corner from Shelby’s property — is a new park plaza with winding sidewalks, ornamental lighting and a pavilion clock tower, also built with his earmarks. Directly east of that sits the new 127,000-square-foot federal courthouse, funded with $67 million in Shelby earmarks, though it is expected to come in under budget. It is an impressive example of Greek-inspired architecture adorned with acroteria.
For about six square blocks, streets have been dug up and replumbed. Roads have been edged with new sidewalks, curbs and decorative lighting. Power lines that once hung from tilting poles have been buried.
“The area was blighted,” Mayor Walter Maddox said. “Many of these buildings were vacant and infested with rodents and bats. They were eyesores that were not only, in my opinion, pulling down adjacent properties, but pulling down the entire central city.”
Using Shelby’s earmarks, the city is pursuing a second phase of improvements, which will upgrade streets and utilities in a roughly two-block area, including the street and infrasctructure in front of the senator’s building.
“That wouldn’t help me any,” Shelby said. “It’s a public street and that’s the city’s.”
The senator’s largesse with taxpayer money is legendary and has been spread across scores of other Alabama communities over many years. His clout comes from being a senator since 1987 and one of the most senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
When seeking appropriations for the project, Shelby certified to Congress that he had no financial interest in the earmarks he requested, a step that has been required since 2008.
“Senator Shelby clearly meets not just the letter but also the spirit of the ethics rules,” Shelby spokesman Jonathan Graffeo said.
Shelby said he did not seek a ruling from the Senate Ethics Committee on whether his earmarks presented a conflict.
“I don’t need one. I’m not a beneficiary of that. If I am, it is so remote, it’s incidental,” he said. “Anything they do is not going to help my property. I fix my own property.”
Shelby bought the building in 1989 for $175,000 and spent an additional $180,000 on renovations, including a new sidewalk, his spokesman said.
Once the renewal plan was underway, the senator spent $116,000 in 2006 to purchase land next to his building and then paved and fenced it for a parking lot. He spent about $358,000 on that and other renovations, a spokesman said.
Shelby said he bought the parking lot because he did not want employees and customers at his building using the new public garage. “That was part of the urban renewal for the merchants,” he said. “I didn’t want my people parking there.”
In 2006, he valued his office building at between $250,001 and $500,000. He valued the property between $500,001 and $1 million on his 2010 financial disclosure form. That year, he reported earning up to $100,000 in rental income from the building and reported receiving $100,001 to $1 million in income from his title company.
Shelby said his building’s value has increased because of the money he has spent on the property. “I put a lot of money into it,” he said.
Locally, the project was controversial because it forced the removal of several businesses.
Consultants in 2004 logged and photographed, block by block and building by building, the condition of more than 100 structures in a 16-block area. They classified Shelby’s block as one of the three with the most blight. Of 17 buildings on Shelby’s block, the report said, all needed moderate to major repairs or were dilapidated — except the senator’s.
The next year, when the city unveiled the urban-renewal plan, Shelby’s block was not among those to be bought out or condemned and razed.
“How did that block manage to stay there when our block was taken?” asked Ed Barton, whose 70-year-old family business, Tuscaloosa Furniture, was forced out to make way for the parking garage. “I felt like it could have been done more fairly for the people that had invested their lives downtown.”
Shelby said he was not involved in the decisions about which buildings to condemn. He said he thinks part of the reason city officials left his block was because the Baptist church owns much of it and had talked of revitalizing it privately.
In interviews, top city officials said the decision was strategic on which buildings to clear and which ones to leave. Shelby’s block sat just outside the area that presented the best locations for the parking garage, the park and the new federal courthouse.
City officials said the renewal plan included public meetings and required final City Council approval. Officials said they met or spoke with Shelby occasionally to discuss the progress, but he did not direct planning.
“It wasn’t like Senator Shelby said, ‘I want this here, here and here,’ ” City Clerk Tracy Croom said. “The improvements that we have made to the downtown area are not for Senator Shelby. They are for the 90,000 residents of Tuscaloosa.”
Barton said his family learned from a newspaper report that the renewal project jeopardized their location, which included two buildings they leased and one they owned. They were forced to close their 125,000 square feet of furniture showroom space in 2006.
“We had probably spent more hours there at that building, my parents had, during the course of the past 30 or 40 years on the planet than we ever spent home or anywhere else,” Barton said. “So that was home to us. We didn’t want to leave home, but we didn’t have a choice.”
Researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this article.
Shelby has earmarked more than $100 million toward rebuilding downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., above, where he owns an office building. The street in front of the building will be redone along with other streets as part of the project’s second phase. Shelby said there is no conflict between his property and the revitalization. “I have nothing to hide. I make no money out of it,” he said.