Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Northport residents say city leaders pushed beach resort plans through despite concerns over the residential area

Courtesy of the City of Northport
Aerial rendering of the Northport water park.

Northport residents are shocked after new plans were revealed by the City Council during its Feb. 19 meeting to enter a public-private partnership with developers to create an almost 80-acre water park and beachfront property. 

Secrecy surrounding the project

Discussion of building a water park in Northport is not a new idea, as an 11-acre, family-friendly water park was previously promised to residents.

The $350 million plan was revealed to the public during the council meeting after the expiration of the nondisclosure agreements city leaders and University Beach LLC signed; these agreements restricted them from discussing the Texas developers’ venture with the public. The park will be built near residential areas in District 5 by Harper Road. 

Bart Harper, former city councilperson and District 5 resident, said he thinks the Northport City Council is trying to compete with Tuscaloosa since Tuscaloosa is planning to develop a Sports Illustrated resort soon.

“We’re not north Tuscaloosa, we’re Northport,” Harper said.

Many Northport residents, especially those in District 5, where the beach resort is supposed to be built on current pastureland, expressed outrage at the council’s lack of transparency. 

Jack Roberts, a District 5 resident, said he is a concerned citizen who is alarmed by the council’s behavior and new project plans. He started a GoFundMe to help residents seek legal advice to fight the development. 

Roberts said he supported the small water park that City Council President Jeff Hogg proposed as he ran for office four years ago; however, Roberts is against the new proposed beach project, the location of the development and the way the council has conducted business. 

When he started hearing rumors that the small water park might be a bigger resort located in his residential area, Roberts said he reached out to his councilperson, Hogg, for clarification.

“I was immediately greeted with a sort of disdain. … It was a very sneering, sort of condescending attitude,” Roberts said. 

Roberts said Hogg told him that he was scared of change and couldn’t see the vision Hogg had for the city.

Harper, owner of Harper Farms, has publicly spoken against the council, including at the Feb. 19 meeting. He said Hogg has acted in an unprofessional manner by publicly making fun of those concerned about the project.

Roberts said the normal proceedings were suspended at the meeting so the council could push the vote through during the meeting. 

Roberts said the public usually has two weeks to discuss projects after they are pitched and come back to take a vote; however, he said the rules were suspended. 

“They ran it through even after almost three hours of citizen after citizen saying, ‘No, this is not what we thought we were getting. This is not what we wanted,’” Roberts said.

The extra acreage for the resort comes from the land the Shirley family of Shirley Farms is selling the University Beach developers, including developer Kent Donahue. The sale was contingent on the partnership passing during the Feb. 19 meeting. 

Jamie Dykes, District 4 councilperson, was the only member to vote against the project in a 4-1 vote. 

Dykes said the idea would have been a good one if not for the location. She said she would prefer a location near Highway 82 West where there are fewer neighborhoods.

The city didn’t have any control over where the developers chose to buy land for the resort, Dykes said. The developers approached the Shirley family on their own and convinced the family to sell, which is why the city agreed to give the developers the land they own in the same area.

Dykes said she understands the project is a huge undertaking. She said residents, especially those in District 5, have valid concerns, which is why she voted against the partnership. 

Dykes said a traffic study will have to be done, as well as additional surveys by the developers regarding the wetlands and flood zones where the project is to be located. Since the city doesn’t own the land, the developers will have to conduct the environmental surveys. She said changes to residential noise ordinances have not been discussed.

At the meeting, Harper said, he had three minutes to ask the council questions and address his concerns; however, the council soon cut this time down to a minute as a result of the number of people who wanted to object to the partnership. 

As a former councilperson, Harper said he would have never undertaken a project of this magnitude without the people’s consent. He said the council’s behavior of suspending the normal voting process and signing NDAs was suspicious.

“I would never, ever sign an [nondisclosure] agreement if taxpayers’ money’s involved,” Harper said.

How the deal was made

Many people have questioned how a Texas developer who has a track record of not finishing projects, connected with a small, Alabama town like Northport. 

Matt Ray, local business owner and Tuscaloosa resident, said he grew up in Texas with John Hughes, a University Beach employee who had experience in managing similar resort-style projects. After seeing pictures of work Hughes had managed, Ray thought it would be a good idea to take this information to the city of Northport, which they knew was considering a water park. 

“The pictures of it were very impressive,” Ray said. “I thought it would be something amazing for this area.”

Ray then introduced Hughes to Northport City Administrator Glenda Webb. 

Ray said that after the two were introduced, Hughes convinced the Shirley family to sell its property to University Beach if a partnership with Northport was reached. 

“Northport seemed to be pretty progressive at the time, so I thought they were pretty much the only one that might listen,” Ray said.

Ray said he does believe there was secrecy involved to close the deal and that this may have been the wrong way to handle the situation. 

Cost concerns

Ray said he thinks there is a lot of misconception around the project since some people believe the city is paying for the development. 

“Most of it is coming from a private investor,” Ray said. “I think that’s a huge investment for the city of Northport, West Alabama for that matter.” 

Dykes said the city is giving the developers 12 acres of land, as well as $20 million for infrastructure improvements. The developers will build the streets and sewer infrastructure, and the city will reimburse them 75% up to $20 million. 

“We will split the sales tax [from] the money that’s spent within the complex … 50-50 for 30 years,” Dykes said. 

Dykes said the city can terminate the agreement if the developers fail to meet certain building checkpoints within five years.

Harper said he thinks infrastructure costs would exceed the $20 million the city has allotted for developers. He said Harper Road would have to be upgraded from a two- to a four-lane road to better accommodate traffic.

A traffic impact study regarding current traffic patterns on Harper Road from March 23, 2023, showed that the two-lane road is already functioning with “unacceptable” levels of service, especially during peak times.

“This could very, very well bankrupt the city of Northport,” Harper said.

Harper encouraged residents to email their state representatives to push back against the development.

“Every day is a win for us when they don’t start turning the dirt,” Harper said.

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