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

Opinion | The Northport water park deal is too good for the city’s politicians

CW / Jennifer Stroud
The city of Northport recently approved a major water park project.

Let me be clear: I want the Northport water park project to succeed. I even think it’s got a decent chance, despite the developer’s troubling history of unfinished projects.

But Northport’s elected officials seem like they have been doing everything possible to make the project fail, to make Northport residents hopping mad, and to hide in the shadows a deal that could have been done in the full light of day.

First, the City Council signed nondisclosure agreements that prevented members from discussing the project right up until it was about to be voted on.

Then, on Feb. 19, with just the legal minimum of notice given, Northport City Council overwhelmingly approved a partnership with University Beach LLC, a company set up by Texan developers, to help them build a $350 million, almost 100-acre resort property in Northport. But for years prior, then-City Council President Jeff Hogg had been describing the project as a small water park around a tenth of the size and a tiny fraction of the cost.

Even fans of the water park plans at the public comment session were skeptical of this sudden, drastic expansion.

“I am very pro-water park because I have two young children and we want to do this as a family. Like, we want to be able to have things in Tuscaloosa County that we can enjoy,” Misty Caddell, a resident of Northport, said. But, she continued, “At 30 to 35 dollars a person for entry, that is not very feasible for a lot of your middle-class residents of Northport.”

Many residents at the meeting were far more critical. Another Northport resident, Linda Davis, stated simply that “You don’t put a water park in the middle of a residential area. It’s just wrong.”

After the council approved the partnership, a GoFundMe campaign was even created by concerned citizens to raise money for a lawsuit meant to “slow things down and allow for meaningful public input.” So far, it’s raised just under $4,000 of a $100,000 goal.

Despite the sheer number of Northport residents who showed up to speak against the water park project, Northport’s city councilors have been … let’s say less than genial.

First the City Council cut the total time each Northport resident was given for their comments from three minutes to just one.

After the partnership was approved, Hogg liked and commented on a Facebook post from a Northport City Hall parody page announcing that Northport would soon be hiring “Pool Cleaners, Life Guards and Tear Wipers,” saying that it “Looks like tear wipers will be working over time .”

The parody page had previously posted several racist memes, like advertising a showing of the James Cameron movie “Titanic” “in honor of Black History Month.” Another post congratulated former Northport Mayor Bobby Herndon for bringing 300 migrants in a U-Haul to the “Northport Community Center now known as the Mariachi Band school and Roofing institute.”

Less than a month after Hogg commented that “tear wipers will be working over time,” on March 7, he suddenly announced that he was resigning as City Council president. After weeks of posts almost every other day, the latest thing to be posted to the parody page is a March 8 post congratulating Hogg for his service.

Hogg was replaced as City Council president by Councilperson Christy Bobo. In a statement to WBRC, Bobo signaled that she would continue supporting the water park public-private partnership.

After all, the water park resort is hardly the first public-private partnership the Northport City Council has approved in recent years. On March 4, the council approved a partnership with Northport Sports Complex Development LLC to build nine baseball and softball fields and a hotel.

The certification of formation for Northport Sports Complex Development LLC was filed with the Alabama state government on March 14, 10 days after the company was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract.

Back in February, the Northport City Council even approved $275,000 worth of incentives attempting to get a Dunkin’ Donuts to set up shop within the city limits.

So why does Northport give so much public money to private businesses? Well, it’s not exactly a rare or new phenomenon. City governments have been subsidizing private enterprises since much of America was getting its first railroads. Today, cities bid for the opportunity to have major companies like Amazon build their headquarters there. Stadiums for professional sports receive much the same treatment.

But why? In 2021, Hogg sent an email to his fellow councilors telling them to “follow the money. These individuals don’t donate to anyone’s campaign or hold signs. But guess who does? Developers and Builders!”

I totally agree. I’ve written in the past about how small donations for local campaigns are overwhelmingly swamped by wealthy donors, developers and real estate companies, and shadowy PACs. Ryan Phillips of Tuscaloosa Patch has even put together a pretty thorough accounting of which developers and PACs are buying Northport elections.

However, even if it’s campaign donations that made Northport’s city councilors decide to sign off on University Beach’s plans, they still got a pretty good deal.

The only immediate cost to Northport is the 11.73 acres that the city has already deeded to University Beach. The rest of the subsidies will only ever be disbursed if University Beach actually breaks ground.

The $20 million for improvements? Only gets paid if University Beach actually spends on public improvements.

The massive discount on sales and lodging tax? Only matters if the resort is actually selling stuff and booking people.

The absolute worst-case scenario is that University Beach uses all $20 million of the subsidies for public improvements and then never follows through and builds the resort. In that case, the city could just buy the land, perhaps using eminent domain, and take advantage of the public improvements, including the 25% paid for by the developers and not covered by the subsidies.

Northport could really benefit from a water park. It could even use a $350 million water park, and the deal that Northport City Council has approved isn’t too bad once everything is accounted for.

But between signing NDAs, trying to hide the deal from voters until the last possible second and then mocking voters on Facebook, it sure looks like the City Council thought it was a bad deal. 

If you act as if you’re doing something wrong, openly antagonize and mock the people whose support you desperately need, and try to spring your plans on everyone, you shouldn’t be surprised when everyone starts bringing out the torches and pitchforks.

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