A plan is being developed to build up the City of Gadsden's western riverfront property on the Coosa River. That plan could include rerouting Highway 411 to allow for more space.
"The other side has been developed as much as it can be because of the wetlands and commercial retail space," said Gadsden Mayor Craig Ford. "You can't develop the east side. We've done all we can on the east side. If you want to develop the river you've got to connect it to our downtown, Broad Street, and connect it down to Rainbow Drive without having to get on Rainbow Drive. That would help this whole area and it would be public-private partnerships."
Gadsden recently contracted with a Birmingham urban planning and development firm called Orchestra Partners. The firm will create a plan specifically for the riverfront.
"We took a map and we drew it out where we wanted it. We started here at city hall and we went all the way down behind the old pump house station kind of behind McDonald's," explained Ford.
The city already owns the land for the development. The plan could include moving city hall and opening the space up for a hotel, green space, a concert venue, remodeling the amphitheater, retail, dining, hiking, and biking trails.
"Some conversations have taken place about relocating city hall and we've talked to multiple hotel developers. Some wanting to keep city hall, the building, and turn it into a boutique hotel. Some want to tear it down and do a brand new hotel. We don't want just any hotel. We want a boutique hotel or a flagship," said Ford. "What we could do here is from city hall all the way behind Arby's it would be all green space. It would be a concert venue, it would be developed on the river. It would be similar to City Harbor in Guntersville but multiply that times four or five and we would have vendors all along there. This street down here, 411, would turn into a two-lane and dead-end down there and be an access road for parking."
A meeting was scheduled with Orchestra Partners Monday to discuss the riverfront plan.
The idea to reroute Highway 411 came while Ford was still running for office.
"It was a wild idea," he said. "I was riding down and I looked up and I thought the natural progression takes me up 2nd Street to the left of Riverview Hospital."
Altering the route of Highway 411 would be closely modeled after Chattanooga's riverfront development.
"We're doing a traffic study now about how you'd divert the traffic [on 411] around 2nd and 3rd streets and bring it back down," explained Ford. "It would come and take out the police department right next to us and be about .8 of a mile."
Ford said they've already met with the Alabama Department of Transportation Divisional Highway Director for the area about relocating the highway. He added they've also brought the idea to the office of U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg.
"I think within the next three to six months, I think we will have some permission to do what we want to do. We'll have our traffic study back. Then we'll go back to the highway department and we will start having public hearings. I think it will move forward," said Ford.
People using the city's riverwalk looked forward to the development.
"Gadsden is very beautiful. It just needs something different. Something that more cities have that we don't so we don't have to go outside of our city to spend more money when we could bring more money into the city," said Steven Jackson, a lifelong Gadsden resident.
Jackson wanted to see activities dedicated to young people along the riverfront.
"A park, anything, An arcade. This water, make a water park. You'd see a lot of kids there. 'Mom, dad can you take me to the water park?' Give them something to do," said Jackson.
"I have two cousins that are 15 and 18. They don't really do too much. They are mostly homebodies because in the city there's really nothing to do. You go by some places there is fighting or shootings, stuff like that. I think it is important to have more stuff for youth to have something to do rather than just for the adults," said Tiara Sandridge, another Gadsden resident.
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Jackson is a truck driver and takes a route through Chattanooga often.
"That is one beautiful place," he said. "Birmingham has Railroad Park. They have built that up. If Gadsden does that, take the time to do that here, I think they will see a huge difference."
More restaurants are also desired.
"We have a lot of burger restaurants and stuff like that. Burgers and wings and stuff. We don't really have a variety of food, different things for us to try. We always have to go outside the city to try different kinds of food. Gadsden I think should have more variety when it comes to places we can go sit down and enjoy," said Sandridge.
Ford believed they'd be able to get federal grant funding for the project. The city has hired a grant writer to help move that process along.
"This is us. This is Gadsden growing," he said. "It's going to work out and we will see this through."
Ford said they'd do what was necessary to protect the river during the development process, like stabilizing the bank.
The city is already looking at phase two of the project which would extend north along the west bank of the river. The first part of that development could include the Challenger Center.
"Our fire department is out there today. We're looking at doing a controlled burn of the land so they can visually see it because it's kind of hard to see. It's three acres right on the water. It has great access for buses to be able to turn around. It would be a great place for the Challenger Center," said Ford.
Residential development could also be a part of phase two.
Ford added they anticipated bringing Riverfest back next year.
Another company has also been hired to create a comprehensive master plan for the entire city.