Editor's Note: This story had been updated following Tuesday night's regular meeting of the Tuscaloosa City Council.
TUSCALOOSA, AL. — Relief funding for Tuscaloosa bars closed by executive order is one step closer to being approved after getting the green light from the City Council's Finance Committee on Monday. The $400,000 plan, though, did come with some tweaks to the initial proposal presented by Mayor Walt Maddox ahead of Tuesday's meeting.
The compromise came following some "very cursory discussions" held by Maddox, District 4 Councilman Lee Busby and Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama President and CEO Jim Page.
"The goal is to move quickly," Busby told the committee. "We’re seeking council adoption by September 15, with disbursement by September 18."
The city's proposed FY 2021 budget, which is currently in the hearings process and has yet to be adopted, sets aside roughly $1.1 million through Restart Tuscaloosa to fund to the Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports Commission as it faces a shortfall from the ongoing pandemic. If passed by the full council, funds left over from Restart could then be appropriated by the City Council for the bar relief funding.
"Since our bars and restaurants are Experience Economy, we think that would be an appropriate use of funds," Maddox said.
Patch reported over the weekend when Maddox's proposal was published in Tuesday's agenda, with the expressed goal of having the money parceled out by Sept. 15.
Busby said the funding mechanism will be modeled after the city's Construction Mitigation Program, which provided aid to businesses impacted by large-scale construction projects on Lurleen B. Wallace Boulevard that began in July 2018.
The councilman then commented that in that case, the businesses impacted were geographically distinct, which can be compared to the current situation facing the 29 bars shut down by executive order last Monday. The directive is set to expire on Monday unless further acted upon by the mayor.
"In this case, the businesses impacted are, by industry nature, very distinct," Busby said. "We agreed that probably the model we used in the Construction Mitigation Program was the most applicable one for this narrowly-defined need."
Busby's compromise would also see a committee established to oversee the vetting process and distribution of the $400,000 appropriated. This is a slight deviation from Maddox's initial proposal, which recommended the city's Small Business Relief Fund (SBRF) handle the review and distribution of funds, while appointing a City Council member as an ex-officio member to the fund's review committee.
The committee would consist of two members from the city's Urban Development department, two from Accounting and Finance, a member from the Tuscaloosa Police Department's Code Enforcement division, a representative from the Chamber, and one City Council representative.
The Committee unanimously approved appointing Busby, at the mayor's recommendation, as the governing body's representative on the committee. Page also recommended appointing Chamber Board Chair Bobby Bragg as the organization's representative, due to his past involvement with similar efforts in recent months.
Page pointed to the fact that Bragg oversaw the $1 million doled out for the Small Business Relief Fund under Restart Tuscaloosa as a reason to provide the board with continuity and experience. The seven-phase initiative began in June and ended in mid-August, with 230 Tuscaloosa businesses receiving grants.
"Our process, obviously, is ready and can jump in at a moment’s notice and make that happen," Page said.
Busby and Maddox also both agreed that just because $400,000 is appropriated, the disbursements will be considered and paid out based on need. Rather, the amount appropriated would be used as a cap for relief funding unless further needs arise.
BAR OWNERS SPEAK OUT
During Tuesday night's regular meeting of the Tuscaloosa City Council, four bar owners spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting to urge the council to move forward with the emergency funding for those impacted by the shutdown.
Chad Smith, owner of Alcove International Tavern and co-owner of Loosa Brews, told Patch on Tuesday that many bar owners who had never met before are now coming together under a united effort after being put in their current situation.
Smith also confirmed to Patch that the group of bar owners prior to the meeting formed the Tuscaloosa United Spirits Coalition (TUSC) to begin speaking up for an industry that has felt targeted by regulations at the local level throughout the pandemic.
The group of owners came together, Smith said, after he followed through with a Facebook email campaign on the Alcove's page to get supporters to email their City Council members.
"I had no idea the Facebook post was going to take," he said. "But then the next thing I know, it had 77 shares and a bunch of bars were sharing it and it picked up some great traction and awareness in the community for our cause."
While the City Council's Finance Committee voted to move forward with the funding for the bars prior to the bar owners making their way to the podium, Smith said the owners still decided to show up to have their concerns heard.
"It’s evident we all have to work together as a community to try to get through it," he told the Council Tuesday night, after expressing his gratitude for the measures already undertaken, apart from the shutdown.
Session Bar owner Hunter Wiggins, who has also been an outspoken advocate for the bars negatively affected by the regulations and most recent executive order, also addressed the council to ask for approval of the funding measure as quickly as possible.
Both Smith and Wiggins have repeatedly stressed to Patch and city leaders that they feel unfairly targeted because their bars don't cater to the college crowd and had been following all of the appropriate public health guidelines.
"This is the hand that we were dealt by the people sitting in the chairs in front of me and I'm imploring you to help us out in our time of need," Wiggins said.
R&R Cigars owner Reagan Starner joined Wiggins in speaking to the City Council twice in as many weeks and echoed many of the same sentiments in asking for a reconsideration of the regulations.
"Let us open," he said. "Let us do something. Let us try to work. Let us do what we love to do."
Maddox told Starner the plan moving forward through the week would be to let bar owners know something as soon as Friday, when the latest COVID-19 testing numbers are made public by the University of Alabama.