Leaders gathered in West Tuscaloosa Tuesday to break ground on the new $12 million Benjamin Barnes YMCA after a decade of delays and debates about the facility's future.

The Barnes branch first opened in 1961 at 2939 18th Street in West Tuscaloosa with funds raised by Black leaders to serve their community - the Civil Rights Act did not outlaw segregation until 1964.

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(Tuscaloosa Area Virtual Museum)
(Tuscaloosa Area Virtual Museum)
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More than sixty years later, the building has long needed either extensive renovations or total replacement, but debates have raged about who should foot the bill and where a new facility might be built.

The matter was finally resolved when the Tuscaloosa City Council voted to purchase the downtown YMCA and the Barnes branch in 2021, allowing both locations to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, last year, the council voted to invest money raised by the Elevate Tuscaloosa tax plan in building a new Benjamin Barnes branch next to the McDonald Hughes Center on Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard.

 

(City of Tuscaloosa)
(City of Tuscaloosa)
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Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and other leaders finally broke ground on the $12 million YMCA Tuesday morning.

Jeff Knox, the CEO for the YMCA of Tuscaloosa, was effusive with his thanks for all those in the community who have advocated for this West Tuscaloosa institution for so long.

"When I arrived in October 2020, three years ago, coming out of the pandemic, I don't think any of us saw this day happening in just three years," Knox said.

One such advocate is recently retired Judge John England Jr., who sits on the YMCA board of directors.

"There was a time I thought we were going to put this place at Stillman," England said. "There was another time I thought we were going to put this place in that clearing across the street from Stillman. There was another time we thought we were going to be able to buy another property and build it where the Y is now. We also thought we were going to be at Stillman Heights. We also thought that the University's architectural department would come and draft everything we needed - none of that happened! But we kept on at it."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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"We came together. I am glad to stand here to say we've come this far by faith and in my heart I know we're going to go even further," England said.

 

England was joined by Tuscaloosa City Councilors Matthew Wilson and Raevan Howard - Howard in particular has been a longtime supporter of the Elevate tax plan and using its revenue to see this project through.

"This fight started long before I was on the council," said Howard, whose father Bobby Howard also served on the council and advocated for investing in the Barnes branch. "The Benjamin Barnes YMCA has been a staple in our community since 1962 and today as we get ready to break ground this is a very exciting moment not just for the YMCA but for all of our youth in the community, Our future looks very bright and it's going to continue to get brighter."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Wilson voted against building the new YMCA at this site next to the McDonald Hughes Center because it will take the branch out of his district, which he feels is often passed over for investment, but that hatchet appeared to be buried Tuesday.

"We have talked together for and against, the votes have been cast, and now the most important thing to happen is that this place becomes a place of innovation, education and social uplift for our community, our boys and our girls," Wilson said. "Although we're looking at dirt right now, one day we'll be looking at a whole campus with two great buildings, two great programs that are able to merge together."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Maddox used the groundbreaking as an opportunity to thank Howard for her early support of the 2019 Elevate Tuscaloosa plan, which increased the city's sales tax by 1 cent and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in infrastructure, education, public safety and recreational projects like the new Y.

"I always joke that eventually we passed Elevate 4-3, but every ribbon cutting has been 7-0," Maddox said. "Today is just the beginning of what we plan to do together in West Tuscaloosa."

"This partnership between the city and Y could not have been more timely. The city needed to reach more of our young people," the mayor continued. "The YMCA, they needed a hand up out of a difficult situation, and out of this circumstance comes what you see behind me."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Harrison Construction will begin building the new YMCA and are expected to complete the job in 2024.

For updates on the new Y and other Elevate projects across the area, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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Gallery Credit: (Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

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