FLORENCE — Almost $1 million has been spent in west Florence in three years in an effort to open the isolated community to commerce and to the downtown hub, but the biggest and most expensive part of the plan is not yet funded.
In 2009, the City Council began approving allocations that have removed derelict houses, cleared overgrown trees and bushes, improved lighting, and rebuilt cracked and broken sidewalks. Much of the money has been drawn from federal Housing and Urban Development funds the city receives each year.
The West Florence Plan, as it’s known at City Hall, also includes plans to reopen the portions of Mobile and Tombigbee streets that were closed 30 years ago when high-rise apartments were built on Pine Street.
West Florence is a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood with few retail or service sector businesses.
But the biggest piece of the revitalization puzzle is finding the money to rebuild a bridge at the western end of College Street. The narrow bridge over Cypress Creek was demolished 40 years ago. By rebuilding the bridge, downtown and west Florence would be opened to Alabama 20 and the city’s sports complex. That, proponents say, would open the only remaining undeveloped land in town to retail and commercial development.
“What’s important about west Florence is that it’s centrally located and there are many people there,” said Melissa Bailey, director of the city Planning Department. “But they don’t have the services other areas take for granted. That was the crux of the plan.”
Rebuilding the bridge — at an estimated cost of $3.5 million — would open a direct link from downtown to the sports complex and points west.
“If we had good, easy access there, people from Central and all around the west end of the county and Tennessee would come through there,” said John B. Cole, who owns Bunyan’s Bar-B-Cue on West College Street. “I’ve been wanting this for a long time.”
Cole owns one of the few businesses that remain in west Florence. Part of what has sustained his business, he said, is his proximity to Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital.
The fate of the aging hospital is critical to west Florence. The company that owns ECM, RegionalCare Hospital Partners, wants to build a new hospital on the other side of town.
If the state doesn’t give them approval to rebuild, then ECM reverts back to local control.
Councilman Dave Smith, who represents west Florence, said talk has surfaced of using ECM as a veterans or children’s hospital. But he also said he has been told the building and equipment are outdated, so opening a discussion of what to do with it is important.
Rebuilding the bridge could have some competition from another road project, Smith said. Wood Avenue, from Tuscaloosa Street to the Seven Points intersection, needs to be rebuilt from the base up, and will be an expensive project.
But redeveloping west Florence and opening College Street to Alabama 20 has some momentum across the community. Steve Holt, president of the Shoals Chamber of Commerce, said rebuilding the bridge is a major issue.
“As you look at the future of that area, with the hospital relocating, that needs to happen to enhance west Florence’s future,” he said. “It falls into the category of, if you build it, they will come.”
“There is a possibility for home-grown businesses there for people who have some resources,” he said.
The city is expected to apply to the Alabama Department of Transportation for federal money earmarked for road and bridge projects for both the College Street bridge and Wood Avenue.
Bailey said city officials have met with west Florence residents to find out what they want for their neighborhood, and the overwhelming answer is retail and service businesses like those in other parts of the city.
“Like other successful commercial areas, the areas around them become successful,” she said. “The West Florence Plan gives us clear directions of where the neighborhood wants to be in the future.”
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.