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Wed June 16, 2004
Changes Along Tuscaloosa's Strip
By Kerri Gentine, Alabama Public Radio
Tuscaloosa, AL – As the University of Alabama slips into its summer routine, noticeable changes are happening right off of campus. The area known simply as The Strip is losing some of its old flavor while at the same time gaining some big improvements. Can this area where students and others from the Tuscaloosa community come to eat, drink and be merry hold on to its unique identity? Alabama Public Radio's Kerri Gentine reports.
The Varsity, Kwik Snak, The Pitcher Show, The International Deli, and Taylor's Big City Store are among the businesses that have come and gone from the Strip over the last twenty-odd years. Vinyl Solution, an independent music store located on the Strip went out of business at the end of May. Owner George Hadjidakis says when he came to the University in the early seventies the Strip was much the same as it is today, with the exception of the many bars that now dot the landscape....
George Hadjidakis: I first came to school here in 1973, and at that time bars were not allowed, oh, I think it was two miles from campus. So there were a lot of small stores, boutique stores, stores that were individually owned and catered to University students. It was very cool back then.
In the mid 1970's bars were able to open within a half mile of the University, thus ushering in a new phase for the area. With the bars came music, and a strong mix of local acts played alongside such national touring acts as Sonic Youth and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The music scene is part of what brought Wright Hale to town. Hale is the owner of Hale's Tavern, a bar and restaurant that closed down within days of Vinyl Solution....
Wright Hale: This place had always had an attraction to me, it's got a lot of personality, a lot of character to it.
Hale says even though he's not sure where he's going to end up or what he'll be doing in the future, the Strip needs to maintain its key elements....
Hale: I don't want Tuscaloosa to not be a fun city. I think it needs nightlife, I think it needs music, it needs good food and a relaxed atmosphere.
Hadjidakis and Hale decided to close their businesses to cut their losses, as did the owners of The Cycle Path, who will be relocating their business off of the Strip. Hale believes one major factor in what some see as the decline of the Strip are the events of 9/11....
Hale: I think after 9/11, a lot of the older group, meaning 40 and up, stopped going out as much.
Hadjidakis sees things a bit differently....
Hadjidakis: Five years ago was when they started doing the improvement of the Strip and unfortunately that was a very long process and it got to the point where people just couldn't get to the Strip even if they really wanted to. There was a whole month where in front of my store was a ditch. So, in my opinion that's what was the beginning of the end for the Strip.
Others agree. Five businesses on the Strip, none of which were involved in this story, are taking a case to Circuit Court, claiming that the renovations irreparably hurt their businesses. However, this defining moment, which Hadjidakis says made people stop coming to the Strip area on a regular basis, is viewed as progress by others. Phillip Weaver is the President of the University Strip Association....
Phillip Weaver: I think people tend to forget how bad it was out here. They were patching the sidewalks with asphalt, there were cracks everywhere, the drainage was bad. It really made a big improvement on what was out here and so it was really, really needed it had gotten run down so bad.
And, the improvements didn't stop there. On one side of University Boulevard are the old, locally-owned establishments that traditionally make up the Strip's unique flavor. On the other side of the street is a new strip mall and Publix grocery store. Hadjidakis says it takes a unique mix to give a college town its own sense of style....
Hadjidakis: If you go to say Athens or Chapel Hill, what you will see is again a lot of boutique stores, a lot of individually owned stores. You'll see corporate stores as well, but by and large mostly what you're seeing is entrepreneurs doing stores, and that's how you build a scene.
Weaver agrees. He says most college campuses have similar areas and it's important for the Strip to keep its unique, eclectic character. He thinks the new nationally owned businesses will bring trickle down business to the locally owned shops along the Strip....
Weaver: What we find is that the people that were in school here did business out on the Strip whether they went to bars or went to eat at places, when they come back it's something that they do remember and they want to walk back and be back in the same area and visit some of those places just to reminisce about the days they were in school.
Most people who do business on the Strip agree that things change, and the Strip is a reflection of the many patrons that frequent the local establishments. While some think the Strip may be becoming a bit too commercial, Hale holds out hope for the future....
Hale: I think there's a place for the Strip, I think it's a nice relaxed atmosphere down here. I've been in most every bar down here, mainly to listen to music. As far as I know everybody's basically law-abiding down here and it's just small businessmen trying to make a living.
For Alabama Public Radio, I'm Kerri Gentine.