Tuscaloosa Council Votes to Relocate Benjamin Barnes YMCA in Heated Meeting
After almost two hours of heated debate between the Tuscaloosa City Council, mayor Walt Maddox and concerned citizens, a split council voted to relocate west Tuscaloosa's Benjamin Barnes branch of the YMCA to the city's McDonald Hughes Community Center on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
The fate of the Y has been a matter of contentious discussion for nearly a decade, but those conversations ramped up in intensity after the council voted last January to purchase both the downtown Tuscaloosa YMCA and the Benjamin Barnes Branch.
The "bailout" likely saved both locations from shutting down, but plans at the time to renovate the Barnes branch later shifted to recommendations to build a new facility entirely.
Many residents of west Tuscaloosa's District 1 were left feeling as though the city was pushing to remove a historically significant community space, first built with funds raised by Black citizens in 1961, from their area and relocate it in District 2.
"The Y is all we have [in District 1] other than our schools," said Jerry Carter, the former president of the Tuscaloosa chapter of the NAACP. Carter said the district is stuck with some of the worst the city has to offer, including the Tuscaloosa County Jail, and very little that is inherently positive.
The council heard from several community activists including former council president Harrison Taylor, current NAACP president Lisa Young, and Mike Altman, the leader of the Tuscaloosa Action group, who all pleaded with them to either table the vote until a later meeting or to vote against the relocation, but those efforts were ultimately fruitless and the council voted 5-2 to relocate the Barnes branch to the McDonald Hughes site.
District 1's Matthew Wilson and District 3's Norman Crow voted against the measure and all other council members voted in favor.
The votes in favor included those cast by District 2's Raevan Howard and District 7's Cassius Lanier, who are both Black. The council members said they understood and appreciated the passion of those in favor of keeping the Y in District 1, but that the city had to make an expeditious decision or risk further delays in making a final decision about the facility.
"We're talking about stopping a process that is worth millions of dollars that is going to add value to our community that is going to be something great and change the mindsets and the attitudes of the youth in our community, to give them a nice, fresh, clean updated facility to go into and participate in sports and recreation," Howard said. "I am asking that we continue to keep the momentum going and not slow this process down because if it is slowed down, if we don't make a decision today, we could possibly lose this money, ultimately, or we might lose this project for another two or three years."
Lanier, who lost a nephew to gun violence in Tuscaloosa last year, said he could not in good conscience kick the can further down the road and continue to accept the status quo in the area.
"I'm advocating for the people who are not here, and that's the boys and girls of West Tuscaloosa who need somewhere to go and who need programs," Lanier said. "If we've got to put it at the McDonald Hughes Center to get a YMCA right now, then I'm with it. We need to move ASAP and I believe we need to consider the children right now."
The new Y facility at the McDonald Hughes Center will be 45,000 square feet, far larger than the existing Barnes branch, and advocates for its relocation said both facilities will be able to offer the community more amenities by joining together than they would be able to in separate locations.
The vote also followed a positive recommendation from the YMCA's Board of Directors, who met with Birmingham's Chambless King Architects for several hours Tuesday to hear a presentation about what will be possible at the McDonald Hughes site.
You can watch a stream of the entire council meeting below, and for more updates on the future of the Y and other Tuscaloosa City Council action, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.