Campus, Lifestyle, Local

“Why Doesn’t Tuskegee Have a Walmart?” Understanding Underdevelopment of Tuskegee

Attending Tuskegee University comes with a litany of unique experiences, students are coming from all over America and sometimes all over the world and thrust into a brand new environment that may be vastly different from their hometowns. While difference in experience comes with a vast amount of pros/benefits such as: a Black majority in the community and university, a rich history, HBCU life and Culture, the southern experience, and so on, it can also come with some cons and one of the main cons about the area and University can be summed up in one simple phrase, “Why doesn’t Tuskegee have a Walmart?” This question has been asked by many students and makes its round on social media once in a while from slightly disgruntled students. Other questions along the same theme are:

“Why don’t we have a hospital?”

“Why don’t we have better restaurants?”

“Why don’t we have ____ ?(Insert large chain here)”

These questions tiptoe around the larger issue of why is the city of Tuskegee underdeveloped and lacking some of the common businesses and amenities that other colleges or communities have? In an interview with Tony Haygood, the Mayor of Tuskegee, he addresses the history of the issue and how it can be dealt with.

Lawrence “Tony” Haygood is the current Mayor of Tuskegee serving his second term in the position. He has also served as the Economic/Business Development Specialist at the Tuskegee-Macon County Community Development Corporation for the past several years.

When asked the question straight forward “Why do we not have a Walmart in Tuskegee?” Mayor Haygood gives some history around the Walmart that used to reside in Tuskegee years ago. When Walmart landed on Tuskegee and jumped ship in the mid 2000s, they became more successful than any other business in Tuskegee but eventually decided to close down for several reasons: “a large amount of unpaid checks, a high rate of utility payments, and a large amount of theft” — Which in layman’s terms means people were paying with bounced checks, the bills were too high, and employees and customers kept stealing.

When asked if the closure of Walmart led to the other large franchises not wanting to invest or develop businesses in Tuskegee he states, “no, I don’t think so … there are a lot of factors that go into that.” He goes on to note these factors as “lack of population, unfriendly business taxes and policies passed by the local government, and the City of Tuskegee being a majority low income area.”

Discussing the issue of “lack of population” Mayor Haygood points to the large commuter population in Tuskegee. Within the community “we have a large part of our population that come in for work or school then go home in the afternoon.” Haygood also points to the large portion of TU students that live in auburn due to issues with the pandemic and a lack of on-campus student housing. Another factor contributing to the lack of population is the exorbitant amount of abandoned and uninhabitable homes that are currently just sitting around the city of Tuskegee. These homes have either been forgotten about by their current owners, their owners have passed away, or the owner pays their taxes and cuts the grass which is just enough in the eyes of the city to where they can keep the land and property even though no one is living there. In order to boost the population of Tuskegee, the city needs to find a way to put citizens or students in these homes, and prevent old greedy citizens from buying up property just to have it sit there and rot. This issue is being addressed by the city’s new abatement project, which will work to repossess these homes and transform them into livable spaces for new citizens and students.

When businesses see the low number of households that actually stay within the city of Tuskegee, they become weary because high shopping hours for most of these businesses is in the afternoon/evening and weekends when these citizens would usually be back in whatever town they commute from. In order to combat this issue the city is working with the university and outside housing developers closely to offer more quality off-campus housing within the city of Tuskegee. They are also working with student organizations to address the large amount of abandoned homes in the city, and to convert them into quality living spaces in order to get a larger portion of our working population and students to reside in Tuskegee.

In terms of unfriendly taxes and policies Haygood points to past policies put in place by local governments. Specifically, he speaks on past administrations enforcing higher sales taxes on businesses instead of ad valorem taxes (ad valorem taxes are expressed on land owners and determined by the value of their land or large assets). He states,

“Instead of Ad Valorem tax we had higher sales tax … done by the county commission in support of education. In most communities that comes from ad valorem which goes on the land owners and not the average citizens’ daily purchases.”

This policy was put into raising the sales tax within the city by two to three per cent, and none of the revenue from this tax was given to the city but instead to the county, and has been renewed several times by the county without the consent of the city. This raise in taxes causes businesses to uptick the price of all of their products in order to cover the tax, which eventually turns large businesses away. Due to the capitalistic society we live in, no business is going to open a large branch in an area with a low population, low median income, and higher rates of tax than the surrounding areas. The current administration is attempting to work against this issue by putting in policies that incentivize businesses to develop in Tuskegee. According to Mayor Haygood the city has begun offering incentives such as “land, assistance in resource acquisition, and streamlining background work needed to begin developing within the city.” He even cites recently offered incentives for the development of the new Shell gas station off of exit 38.

Finally, it is common knowledge that the city of Tuskegee has a large low-income population. Mayor Haygood notes that unfortunately this has also played a role in some larger businesses not wanting to come to Tuskegee. Specifically, he notes a period in time when Publix was looking into bringing a location into Tuskegee, but eventually decided not to because of the low population and average income of each household. Mayor Haygood states, “the people who actually live in Tuskegee, not just the people who work here, their [income] is not sufficient to support those kinds of businesses right now.” (Publix is a large chain of grocery stores based in Florida, that has an above-average price range and quality — similar to that of Whole Foods.)

Even with these factors Mayor Haygood still acknowledges that there are clear racial and socioeconomic biases that prevent certain businesses from even looking in the general direction of Tuskegee. That being said, he is sure if we work on the above issues we can overcome the racial and social biases, citing places like the cities of Montgomery and Tallassee that have managed to hurdle racial and class barriers by addressing similar factors. Mayor Haygood also reveals that there are right now businesses looking to build in Tuskegee such as a Sleep Inn Hotel, a Shoney’s, and a Captain D’s.

Haygood attests that the only way to eliminate these issues is through a collective effort from the local government, university, the student body, and community members. Mayor Haygood notes that the City must be able to work in collaboration with the University and County Office on this issue instead of “sending students to Auburn” or “renewing the sales tax without consulting us.” He encourages the University to promote more local housing options and has even begun assisting the University in efforts to renovate dorms and assist in building more local apartments for students, and to have more transparency with the County Office and the City. In terms of what the average student or citizen can do, Mayor Haygood invites all students and citizens to get involved with City Council meetings and to feel free to contact the City Office or Tuskegee Macon County Community Development Corporation (TMCDC)  to see what projects or initiatives they are working on.

The Mayor and his administration have made a concerted effort to address the issues that prevent businesses from coming to Tuskegee on several fronts. In addressing the issues of population the Mayor’s office is taking an aggressive stance against the amount of abandoned homes within the City of Tuskegee through the Abatement Project and the Abatement Taskforce — two city-sponsored initiatives that are working to repair, rebuild, or renovate the large amount of abandoned homes within the City in order to make them into quality living spaces for members of the community. The Mayor has also committed to preventing gentrification of these new homes by making them available to certain residents first. They include students, community members, alumni, people employed in Tuskegee, and relatives of community members. In addition, the Mayor’s office has also begun to court several businesses looking to develop in Tuskegee and (as stated earlier) has offered a variety of incentives such as access to land, streamlining paperwork, access to cheaper resources, and other incentives to begin the process of building within the city.

It must be noted that these types of issues are large systemic issues that will take years of strategic planning and passionate individuals to be resolved. A concerted effort from all stakeholders will be imperative for the development of Tuskegee. The City and the Mayor’s office will need to continue their efforts to raise the population and offer incentives for new businesses. The county will need to re-evaluate its fiscal policies to ensure the area is business-friendly and all policies are beneficial for the City, County, University, and Businesses. Tuskegee University over the next two to three years will need to begin to reverse some of its housing policies caused by the pandemic in order to bring back the majority of students who have been shipped over to Auburn or not given on-campus housing at all. Finally, the community needs to come together to support the businesses coming to Tuskegee, and the businesses we already have, instead of spending all of our money in surrounding cities like Auburn and Montgomery.

Getting a Walmart, or any other large franchise to come and build in Tuskegee, is no simple task and will not happen overnight. Most likely, the current generation of students will not see most of the work being done right now come into fruition during their time at Tuskegee. When combating this issue, we are not fighting for ourselves but for the generations of students and community members that are going to come after us.