Dozens of leaders from in and around Tuscaloosa arrived in Asheville, North Carolina, Sunday afternoon for the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama's fourth Benchmarking Trip, where they hope to learn what works well in the area and bring some of those ideas back to West Alabama.

Planning for the journey began in 2019, and after delaying the event because of the COVID-19 pandemic, around 80 titans of business, government and public service from Tuscaloosa and Northport are here in the Blue Ridge Mountains to take in as much as they can before returning to the Yellowhammer State Tuesday.

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Sunday night's lessons came from Esther Manheimer, Asheville's progressive mayor since 2013.

As the leader of a city whose population, annual budget and more are directly comparable to Tuscaloosa's, Manheimer spent nearly an hour giving a presentation then answering questions from the Druid City delegation about why her city is present on so many lists of the best places to live, work and retire in the United States.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

Manheimer said one of Asheville's top policy priorities is creating affordable housing, as an increasing number of out-of-state residents move to her city and drive up the cost of living for native residents.

"We have all these people from California who keep moving here," Manheimer said. "When they come here and buy houses and push up housing market, which is happening seriously here, it's creating an affordable housing crisis for us."

She joked that Tuscaloosa should be careful what it wishes for -- that improving an area will naturally draw more people to it, and municipalities must have a plan in place for how to take care of people who suddenly find themselves unable to afford living there.

Other priorities included making public transit more sustainable and major capital improvements.

Manheimer said the city is also taking concrete steps to bolster public safety after roughly a third of their police force resigned or retired in the last year and a half.

"We just gave them a big raise, because we had a problem there," Manheimer said. "We just increased our starting salary and all the way up through the ranks to try and help retain those folks we do have and then recruit new folks."

The mayor said the salary increases will help her city compete with nearby municipalities and also help frontline public servants battle back against the aforementioned cost-of-living increases.

If that policy priority sounds familiar, that's because the same conversations are ongoing in Tuscaloosa, where mayor Walt Maddox has recommended significantly increasing the pay of the city's police officers and firefighters.

The Tuscaloosa City Council adopted a resolution last week supporting Maddox's recommendations about the police and fire pay plan and said they would aim to adopt those raises by April 2022.

Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for more updates live from Asheville, where Saturday's agenda includes a tour of New Belgium Brewing Company, the regional riverfront, the Asheville Community Theatre and more.

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