The city of Tuscaloosa will soon decide whether to spend $10 million to significantly upgrade the large but mostly empty Snow Hinton Park on McFarland Boulevard near Midtown Village.

The park today is defined by its wide-open green space and a large climbing net leading up to a 38-foot tube slide that was broadly billed as "the tallest in the southeast" when it was installed in 2015.

Plans to transform the park have been in the works since Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox first saw his Elevate Tuscaloosa sales tax increase adopted in 2019, but a few other things have changed dramatically since then - including an explosion in the costs of materials and labor.

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(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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"The budget for this project actually began in April 2019, at $5 million," Maddox said during a meeting of the city's Public Projects Committee Monday. "By the time we went to bids that budget number was grossly out of line with the reality of the construction situation."

Now the project to add a walking Ellipse and central plaza, new pavillions, expanded parking and tons of beautification features comes with a construction price of $10,274,766, more than double original estimates.

Maddox and staff said Monday only one contractor, the John Plott Company, bid on the project. Even accounting for four years of uncontrollable inflation, Maddox said their bid came in high.

(City of Tuscaloosa)
(City of Tuscaloosa)
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The price tag had some council members bristling at the spike in costs and pondering which proposed amenities might be cut from the planned upgrades to save a few hundred thousand dollars.

Ultimately the committee voted to advance all proposed upgrades at the $10.2 million price tag for a vote of the full council, with an agreement to continue discussions aimed at reducing costs at a later date.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The rush to move discussions out of committee came in part from Maddox, who said if the council re-bid the project, prices might only be more extreme - particularly in light of the emergent Israel-Hamas war, the global impact of which is yet to be felt.

"The reason why we believe we should go forward with these amenities is that moving forward, we don't know if we'll ever see prices at this level again," Maddox said Tuesday. "Especially with what's going on in the world today. If we continue to engage in park improvements, this may be the best pricing we can get."

He also warned that the council could likely expect to see plenty more painful price hikes in the future.

"This will not be the last project that came out of the initial Elevate recommendations in 2019 which is not going to be within the budget we thought of before COVID and before the great inflation," Maddox said. "We will have to continue to adjust and recalibrate as we've been doing. That's the reality that we're in."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The debate over the price tag of the proposed upgrades drew a passionate case for Snow Hinton Park from councilman John Faile, who told a group of student journalists visiting from the University of Alabama that he wanted to create a park families of the future would love.

"I looked at it and at one point I was saying let's take this out and that out, but the more I thought about it - I want this to be a park for these students over here to enjoy, their children to enjoy, something we can all be proud of in another generation," Faile said. "We talk about doing something to keep people in Tuscaloosa. I don't know that this will keep people in Tuscaloosa, but it will be a great place for you guys to take your grandchildren if you stay in this town."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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All committee members but Lee Busby voted in favor of accepting the full $10.2 million bid. For updates when the full council votes to advance the project later this month - which could mean work on the upgrades starting before November - stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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