Jan 10 2006

Sen. Shelby holds town hall meeting

Tuscaloosa News

By Tommy Stevenson

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby briefed a breakfast audience Monday about war, the economy and this year’s national elections.

But once he turned the meeting over to questions from about 200 people at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel, nearly all of the questions were about such local issues as the renovation of downtown and the need to keep federal social programs intact.

The “Chamber in Session" town meeting, sponsored in part by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, is an annual event usually timed to the beginning of a new session of Congress. It has been dominated in past years with questions about the Bush administration’s attempt to revamp Social Security and the war in Iraq .

On Monday, however, Social Security never came up. And Shelby, in short remarks before opening up the floor for questions, was the only person to mention Iraq, where he admitted that the United States never anticipated the insurgency like the one that has gone on there.

“And we make mistakes -- the president has told you this," the Tuscaloosa Republican said. “But I believe Iraq will be better off.

Iraq will never be like England or Canada or Germany or other European nations, but they do have free elections for the first time.

“They are going to run their own country for the first time, we hope. But they have got to build their army, they’ve got to build their police force, and they’ve got to maintain control of their own country. And they are a long way from that. But I think they are making progress."

Shelby seemed much more positive talking about the ambitious plan he is spearheading to build a new federal courthouse near City Hall and with it, renovate much of downtown Tuscaloosa .

“I think the city can use this as a catalyst. And it is going to take a number of years for the revitalization of Tuscaloosa ," he said.

Shelby said he has already secured more than $36 million in downtown revitalization funds, which will go for purchasing and razing existing buildings in the area, and more than $42 million for the construction of the courthouse.

But he said more money would be on the way.

“We’re really going to spend about $100 million in this area," he said. “I think it will be for the benefit of everybody in Tuscaloosa ."

He also said he is working on a plan with the University of Alabama to revamp the science and engineering campus by spending as much as $200 million in brick and mortar on buildings like Shelby Hall, a science classroom building opened in 2004 and named for Shelby ’s wife, Annette. It is the largest academic building on campus

“If we are successful, we will be able to recruit and retain some of the top faculty in the world for research and teaching right hear on this campus," he said.

Asked a general question about energy policy, the 71-year-old Shelby, first elected to the U.S. House in 1978 and the Senate in 1986, said he has always supported drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska . Some environmental groups say that would ruin one of the last pristine wilderness areas in the country.

“If we can drill [for gas and oil] in the Gulf of Mexico , we sure as heck can drill up there," he said. “If there are five billion barrels of oil or if there are 20 billion gallons of oil in ANWR, we can extract it. We can protect the environment -- I know we can -- and go from there.

“If we don’t, we are going to become more and more dependent on foreign oil."

Several representatives of local social agencies encouraged Shelby to protect federal programs, including the system of veterans hospitals in the state.

Zelpha Wells, who teaches piano classes for the under-privileged, commended Shelby for helping her keep her doors open through several small federal grants.

In his remarks, Shelby said Alabama has the lowest unemployment rate in 30-something years and predicted that Republicans, who have majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate, will stay in control.

The town meeting in Tuscaloosa Monday, also sponsored by the Tuscaloosa Association of Realtors, the Home Builders Association and Morgan Keegan, was the first of 67 Shelby has in each Alabama county every year. He traveled to Fayette, Walker and Marion counties Monday and has a full slate of meetings scheduled for the rest of the week.