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.