Eutaw council ‘coming together’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 31, 2004

“I see the leadership coming together in the community,” said Eutaw Mayor Raymond Steele. “We’ve been through some rough times; we’ve had some difficult decisions to make, some unpopular decisions to make.

“Often times, communities go through those (rough times) before they move forward. We have challenged each other with these decisions.”

“…Eutaw has a great opportunity to be a model community for whatever we choose,” he said. It has the opportunity to attract commercial as well as industrial business. The town has a lot to offer including railways and interstate highway, a hospital and good law enforcement. “We haven’t taken advantage of these resources.”

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Steele said community leaders need to help improve the school system to help attract development.

“The industries that are here (South Fresh, Winchester Carton and United Roofing) can testify that we have been a good community to invest in,” he said. The leadership in Eutaw need to work together to let industry know they will be there to support them.

“…We don’t want to be as big as Tuscaloosa…but we want to have the right industries here and enough jobs for our citizens so they can provide for themselves and their families.

“…Eutaw is, to me, the most beautiful small town in West Alabama,” Steele said. “Eutaw has some of the most beautiful homes. The downtown area is unique itself.” The buildings on the historic courthouse square on in the process of being renovated. One building is almost finished and will become the new headquarters for the chamber of commerce. “I can just imagine the beauty of that square when all those buildings are completely renovated.”

Steele envisons the entire downtown area being revitalized. He sees that within the next five years. The city council voted Tuesday to buy property to possibly expand the city hall.

“I see the leadership coming together in the community. We’ve been through some rough times; we’ve had some difficult decisions to make, some unpopular decisions to make. Often times, communities go through those (rough times) before they move forward. We have challenged each other with these decisions.”

The town plans to prepare a strategic plan in the next 30 days or so. He wants to include in the planning sessions many of the 50 to 60 people who attended a recent leadership workshop held in Eutaw.

Steele has been the mayor of Eutaw for just over three years. He wants Eutaw to be known for more than just for GreeneTrack racing and bingo facility. “GreeneTrack is here; bingo is here,” he said. “I hope that it produces what the people want it to produce….The money that we have received from GreeneTrack has been normally around $30,000 (annually, before bingo began).” In its heyday, GreeneTrack may have been a major economic factor for Eutaw.

“We need to have industry; we need to have commercial development here. We want those type jobs that are going to stabilize our economy.

Steele wants a business climate where the local citizens can shop at home and don’t have to go to Tuscaloosa or other communities to provide for their needs. “We want a hotel; we want the restaurants; we want a clothing store, shoe store; we want the video places – all the things that other communities have.”

One roadblock in his plans for progress has been opposition to annexation. Anyone who visits a recent meeting of the Eutaw City Council can cut the tension with a knife.

“Even though those issues are out there, we’re still moving forward,’ the mayor said. “We’ve had some difficult decisions we had to make. Those decisions were very unpopular with some residents as well as some of the council members.”

Steele has fought against the city council to annex property in the southern sections.

“Annexation was an issue that had been discussed many times with the council members over a period of about two years. The council never really came to a conclusion.

“The council knew in 1990 that we had a problem with losing our population.” A former mayor had even challenged the census in 1990 to regain the city status. A town must have a least 2,000 in population to be designated a city. Eutaw currently has 1,800.

When Steele came into office, the city had to borrow money to make payroll. “I had to work with the community and the council to do a one-cent sales tax to prevent us from borrowing money. I reduced some of the workforce.”

An increase from five mils to 17.5 mils in ad volorem tax was also controversial.

Now Steele had to deal with “the biggest hurdle I would have to overcome,” annexation. “There is no record out there, hardly, where Eutaw ever expanded its city boundries….There is no room out there for growth. There is no room in the downtown area for growth.

“Every community has taken advantage of Interstate 20/59, Livingston, York, Tuscaloosa. There was a tax base that we needed to tap into.”

Businesses near the industrial park on Highway 43 need law enforcement and other services, he said. There are 600 acres that he wanted to bring into the city limits.

Steele also wants to bring the airport and the Lock 7 road community into the city limits.

One of the most controversial sections that Steele wants to bring in is the Branch Heights community, built by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “The residents of Branch Heights had challenged the city (in the past) to allow them to be a part of the city.

“…All of this is right next to the City of Eutaw. I just thought it was the right thing to do to bring the community together – just do it all at one time.” Certain communities were going to be upset if you left them out and let others in. “It was going to be difficult for me regardless of which way I went.”

Obviously, “that number of African Americans was going to drastically change the make up of city government,” he said. “…That may be one of the reasons to why they may be opposing this so much.”

Opponents also see annexation as a drain on city resources. “Branch Heights and King Village affects Eutaw whether we want to police out there or not. You have that number of residents out there without police protection.” The sheriff can’t patrol like Eutaw police, he said. Those residents are being taken advantage of by illegal activities, which will bleed over into the city limits.

In addition, the residents of Branch Heights and King Village shop in Eutaw more than some of the prominent city citizens who shop out of town. “They were providing a great amount of revenue for this community.”

Steele said officials from the University of West Alabama and the West Alabama Regional Commission had approved his annexation proposal. The mayor was doing all the legwork, but the council didn’t trust his figures.

The proposal was tabled continually. Steele called a special meeting to vote on the proposal. “It failed for the lack of a second,” he said. “If the council was not willing to make a decision – then as mayor I felt like I had to make a decision for the city as a whole.”

Two versions of the bill were advertised in the two Eutaw newspapers. The version which called for the public to vote on the annexation did not make it into the final bill sent to the state legislature.

The bill was signed into law June 17 by Governor Bob Riley. A suit was filed June 25 by Shelia Hann against the bill. The case currently in Montgomery County Circuit Court, but the case was recently delayed due to the illness of Hann’s attorney.

“That does represent a divide,” Steele said. “That does let us know that there are still a few people here that do not want to allow for growth and development. The (annexation) proposal…is not going to be a financial burden on the City of Eutaw.

“We are still out there defending this. The council made a decision not to let the city attorney (Mike Smith) represent it. The council made a decision not to allow any funds to be expended to defend the case. This is one of those difficult things that I’m faced with.

“I’m not sure what this council wants the city to do. These members have been on this council for a great number of years….What kind of vision do they have for the City of Eutaw?”