Leaders in Tuscaloosa are looking to raise $2.8 million to invest directly into improving the lives of people living in specific, underserved parts of the city.

It is no secret nor surprise that people, especially children, achieve better outcomes when their environments are improved, and throughout our area there are countless people, companies and nonprofits who are more than willing to invest resources into making those improvements.

The problem is in coordination - how do you make sure the resources donated end up in areas of greatest need?

At a Tuesday morning meeting at the Tuscaloosa Rivermarket, leaders from the city of Tuscaloosa, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, the United Way of West Alabama, the city school system and Shelton State Community College said it's time to deliberately address that dilemma.

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The problem led to the development and introduction of a concept leaders are calling the Tuscaloosa Zone - Chamber board chairwoman Michele Coley said the organization's former President and CEO Jim Page brought the idea back to West Alabama after a trip to Spokane, Washington.

Joe Eatmon, the Dean of Community Relations at Shelton State, summarized the nuts and bolts of the program.

"We always say whether you're eating an apple or an elephant, you eat it one bite at a time," Eatmon said. "That's the concept behind the Zone Initiative - instead of trying to impact the entire city, we really focus on impacting smaller areas, and that leads to the broader impact in time."

Eatmon said experts have combined data from many different sources that suggest a significant link between problems at school or with law enforcement and problems at home - the kind of problems that Tuscaloosa's fleet of charitable people and organizations could reasonably hope to solve.

Using the data to draw a heatmap over the city, leaders have identified the first 'zone' to flood with resources as a slice of West Tuscaloosa with a northern border of Stillman Boulevard and a southern boundary six blocks south on 21st Street.

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

Simple things - a missing wheelchair ramp, an out-of-control lawn or lack of access to mental health - any of those could be a serious obstacle to an adult in the zone thriving in the workforce, their children thriving in school or both.

"What we'd like to do is address every need in every house," in the Zone, Eatmon said.

To that end, the civic leaders at the Rivermarket Wednesday - Coley, Eatmon, Mayor Walt Maddox, TCS Superintendent Mike Daria and more - asked a few dozen of the area's most influential residents to consider pledging their financial support to the initiative.

Eatmon said $2.8 million could have a significant impact on the Zone - $1.5 million for home repairs and improvements, $300,000 for transportation efforts, $650,000 for after-house youth programming and more.

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

By targeting resources into this West Tuscaloosa Zone, leaders hope to make a measurable impact on everything from school attendance and performance to crime rates and blight.

"What we want to do is to marry all the great forces of generosity, compassion, decency and dignity in this community into one united force working in one area of our city, then measure that data," Maddox said. "I believe three, five years down the road you're going to see a marked increase in test scores, quality of life, income, you name it."

Those interested in learning more about, participating in or donating to the Zone Initiative are encouraged to call or email TCS Superintendent Mike Daria.

For updates on the program as it grows in time, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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