FIVE YEARS LATER: BUSINESS IS BOOMING ON 15TH STREET
Note: This story, and many others on the April 27, 2011, tornado, aired during WVUA 23’s 1 and a half hour special program “Faces of the Storm” on April 27, 2016. If you’d like to watch the whole series, click here.
The 15th Street corridor in Tuscaloosa is one of the city’s most heavily trafficked areas, especially where it intersects with McFarland Boulevard.
After the April 27, 2011, tornado tore through the area, its landscape changed for good. Businesses and homes along the corridor were decimated or severely damaged from north of the Forest Lake neighborhood all the way down into Veterans Memorial Parkway. University Mall was grazed, but across the street at Wood Square shopping center housing Hobby Lobby, Big Lots and others, there was barely anything salvageable.
Tuscaloosa favorite Taco Casa was one of the stores the storm smashed.
Taco Casa Manager Annette Cotton said she was inside the restaurant with some of her employees as the tornado passed overhead.
“I took all the employees to the storage room,” she said. “That was our safe place. I just made sure everybody was in a safe area. My main thing was trying to keep everybody calm and keep everybody safe.”
Taco Casa owner Rod Wilkins said it took 172 days before the 15th Street location was once more open for business. But five years later, business is booming.
“Business is good,” Wilkins said. “The day of the tornado, it took one of our stores. We had seven stores and it took one, so after that business increased at the other stores.”
Just down the street, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts was leveled with five employees still inside. Owner Evan Smith said when he saw the destruction, he couldn’t believe it.
“Somebody texted me a picture of the store, and there wasn’t a store anymore,” Smith said. “I’m thinking the five employees got killed, I was in panic mode.”
It took a year and a half for Krispy Kreme to rebuild and reopen. During their grand opening in 2013, lines of cars filled with doughnut-craving residents wrapped around the building and out onto McFarland Boulevard. Things were so hectic the Tuscaloosa Police Department came out and directed traffic.
“Tuscaloosa and West Alabama have really responded to us coming back,” Smith said. “It took a tragedy for all of Tuscaloosa to bounce back stronger, and you see that built all around us today.”
Today, the $60 million shopping center called the Shoppes at Legacy Park sits directly behind Krispy Kreme and fellow tornado-destroyed restaurant Full Moon BBQ. The center occupies what was once the Cedar Crest neighborhood.
District 4 City Councilman Matt Calderone said the city wanted to build back stronger, with a focus on retail recruitment and economic development.
“I think we’ve done that,” he said. “There’s more businesses on 15th Street and McFarland (Boulevard). Better businesses, businesses that are contributing to our tax base to allow us to offer better services to our citizens for a better quality.”
Businesses such as Fresh Market, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cost Plus World Market, PetSmart, Bed Bath and Beyond, DSW and other stores, and several restaurants like Nothing but Noodles and Chuey’s.
Calderone said it’s just the beginning.
“I think you will see more developments coming to 15th and McFarland,” he said. “It’s one of the largest commercial corridors in West Alabama. It sits next to the largest hospital in West Alabama, and the largest university in the state.”