Downtown Development Series -- Tuscumbia
By Christy Pepper, Alabama Public Radio
Downtown Development Series -- Tuscumbia
Tuscumbia, AL – When Alabamians think of Tuscumbia, they normally associate it with Helen Keller. Now the town is learning to capitalize on that and other historical traits to pull in visitors - and revive their economy. The downtown area was nearly dead, but signs of growth are springing up everywhere. From our University of North Alabama Bureau, Christy Pepper takes us on a journey through downtown Tuscumbia.
(sound of cars/traffic)
Tuscumbia - That's the steady hum of cars driving by as I walked in downtown Tuscumbia recently - a sound rarely heard in a town that was economically dying just 5 years ago. Mayor Bill Shoemaker says the town prospered until the 1960s when it was a main route to Memphis:
Shoemaker: Then when 72 opened in '59, people had to make a point to come here. They didn't just accidentally come here.
As Tuscumbia now focuses on bringing people back into town, residents are confronted with a new problem: finding a place to park. Tuscumbia is capitalizing on its rich history and renewed growth from a different angle - the angle of tourism. Developer Harvey Robbins has opened several new businesses in downtown Tuscumbia in the last five years. Mayor Shoemaker credits the Tuscumbia resident for his dream and efforts to see the town prosper again. He says Robbins enthusiasm and financial investment served as a catalyst for bringing the downtown area back to life.
Shoemaker: Thank goodness for Mr. Robbins' generosity! He's poured millions of his personal dollars into town and he's done a lot of work toward buying some of the older, dilapidated buildings and bringing them back up to a point where they can be occupied.
Matt Howell works at one of Robbins' new businesses, Rigazza's Italiana. Howell has lived in Tuscumbia all his life, and enjoys the new direction the city is now taking:
Howell: Right now it's service - businesses, restaurants, people are bringing newer shops and mostly it has helped to put a better face on Tuscumbia, to change it from being a ghost town to being a place where people want to go. One thing I like about Tuscumbia is it's a great example of when people put their minds together what they can achieve.
As I walked throughout the quaint, downtown area of Tuscumbia and talked with different people, Howell's opinion is one I heard over and over again. Star Boatright, co-owner of a secondhand store, told me how the revitalization effort has renewed the spirit of the people of Tuscumbia:
Boatright: Everybody's taking more pride, Tuscumbia merchants have always had pride. That's not what I'm saying. Now, everybody's trying cause they see a future, so they're striving to reach that point.
Boatright says she loves Tuscumbia, and compares it to Mayberry. Everyone knows each other, and people have a great sense of worth about the area. Perhaps it's the rich history of Tuscumbia that gives the residents such pride in their community. Spring Park, one of Robbins' restoration projects, acts as a drawing card to the downtown area with its sizeable, man-made waterfall originating from a natural spring. Then, there's the statue of a Native American mother cradling her infant, honoring the passage of her people through Tuscumbia on the Trail of Tears. And as I walked through the Park, the sound of a train approaches
(train whistle, ride by)
a symbolic throwback to the days when Tuscumbia was a booming railroad town. The amusement style ride makes a trip around the park periodically throughout the day, and plans are underway to operate a real train along its original path, beginning at the recently restored Railroad Depot and traveling to what is known as Sheffield, originally know as Tuscumbia landing. Even with such new attractions, businesses, and recent renovations, Shoemaker agrees Tuscumbia has made great progress but says the town still has a long way to go:
Shoemaker: We want to be prepared to accommodate anyone who wants to shop for vacation type things, and we hope that's the way we will evolve, but we definitely have had an increase in our downtown traffic. We're definitely moving in the right direction.
Over the last five years Tuscumbia has moved forward, and one thing has become very clear as the city faces its economic trials: the rebirth of Tuscumbia is a product of the people's hopes, dreams, and desire to see Tuscumbia experience the prosperity it did nearly a half a century ago.
For Alabama Public Radio, I'm Christy Pepper.