So what if 19th century evangelist Lorenzo Dow was critiquing the Biblical basis for particular election while coining that famous phrase? For our purposes he was foretelling the greatest ideological debate in the modern day history of the Magic City: To build, or not to build, a domed stadium.
These past few weeks have given me an opportunity to do what do few of our city’s decision-makers will: fairly and openly listen to both sides of the dome debate, spend hours independently researching other cities with similar facilities and finally, come to a decision after weeks of thoughtful discourse and internal debate.
I’ve heard the pitches from both sides: The BJCC’s Jack Fields told me the dome would save our city; Councilor Valerie Abbott told me the dome would destroy it. I saw the council approve its funding; then I read where Carole Smitherman was searching for a way to rescind it a week later. I’ve sat in front of my computer screen for hours at a time, exhaustively researching the other 14 cities that decided to build domed stadiums. I saw where it worked for Phoenix and Atlanta, and where it failed for St. Louis and St. Petersburg.
I am not so conceited as to believe that my opinion alone could or would make any impact on whether the project moves forward or grinds to a halt. I can assure you that whatever paltry amount of difference my opinion means to you the reader, it means infinitely more to you than it does to the likes of Larry Langford, John Rogers or the rest their ilk. But after devoting a month of my precious news space to the subject, I feel I’m adequately qualified to say that building a domed stadium in this town, in this economic environment is not at all a good idea.
That wasn’t always the case. I’ve consistently maintained that the failure of the MAPS plan back in 1998 – which called for a one-cent county sales tax hike to pay for a stadium, light rail and restoration of the Lyric Theatre, among other cool projects – was the single worst thing to happen to this city in my lifetime. Who knows what Birmingham would look like today if that proposal had passed 11 years ago last Tuesday? My guess is we’d be in a much better place.
Instead, the Birmingham we have now is in far worse shape than the Birmingham we had back then. Our Fortune 500 companies have either merged, moved, closed or collapsed under the weight of accounting shenanigans. Back then we were the banking and sports medicine capital of the New South. Now we can’t even keep the likes of Red Diamond from jumping to the suburbs.
Back then the University of Alabama still played football at Legion Field. Back then Legion Field still had an upper deck! But then the Tide figured out the astronomical return on investment they’d gain by transforming Bryant-Denny Stadium into a college football showplace. Soon after, Legion Field went from “Football Capital of the South” to stadia non grata. Bear’s statue remains, but the stadium’s upper deck does not, condemned by the city and dismantled in 2005.
Back then the NFL in Birmingham was not a pipe dream, but a distinct possibility. Rumor had it that the Minnesota Vikings wanted out of Minneapolis and that an investment team from Birmingham was in a bidding war to move them here. In the end, our bids fell short, but the concept of big league football in our town wasn’t as laughable a prospect then as it is now. These days, the NFL is much more interested in expanding their brand internationally rather than domestically. Even if the league wanted to add two more teams in the states (remember, two conferences means two teams must be added at a time), my gut says Los Angeles and San Antonio are much higher on the list than Birmingham, Ala.
So why are we doing this? Officially, we’re doing it so the BJCC can have additional floor space for conventions and trade shows. Unofficially, we’re doing this so Larry Langford can scratch another notch on his bedpost before his bedpost moves from Fairfield to the federal pen. Either way, the idea of building such a facility has fundamental flaws.
First, it makes no sense to build a stadium when we don’t have a team to play in it. If the BJCC wants floor space, then build floor space. Build Birmingham’s equivalent to Chicago’s McCormick Place or Philly’s Pennsylvania Convention Center. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper and the ROI would be much higher. The BJCC’s most glaring need would be met, the city would see a bump in tourism and we’d rake in the tax dollars.
Instead, building a domed stadium implies that the primary use of the facility would be for sports. Jack Fields says UAB would play football there, which would make UAB the primary tenant. If that’s the case, why isn’t UAB contributing to the cost of the construction? And let’s be honest, UAB has been playing football in downtown Birmingham for more than a decade now and the economic impact it has generated is hardly worth the city rewarding them with a new half-billion dollar athletic facility.
Second, history reveals that domed stadiums are very poor investments. Of the 14 cities that have domed facilities, nine have either already replaced their facility with a new one, are planning to soon, or are currently contemplating doing so in the near future. Of those nine cities, all but one (Houston) built their facilities after 1974.
Unlike older outdoor parks, such as Chicago’s Soldier Field or Boston’s Fenway Park, domes are not built with retrofitting or remodeling in mind. Whatever era they are conceived in is the era they are stuck with for life. When modern facility innovations manifest themselves on new construction sites – as they do on a near-daily basis – the only choice dome cities have is to implode and rebuild in order to keep up with the times. Ergo, building a dome is like buying a car – immediately it becomes a depreciating investment.
Third and finally, a half-billion dollars simply too much money to spend considering our county, and to a far lesser extent our country, is perched precariously alongside the financial abyss.
Last Monday, roughly 2,400 of Jefferson County’s 3,600 employees were shown the door for no better reason than their county is broke. As a result, our personal safety will be compromised, as there are not enough sheriff’s deputies on the payroll to adequately staff the department. Our infrastructure will suffer because our highway departments are low on bodies. Our quality of life will suffer because the personal cost of doing business in a county that’s running a ratio of one courthouse for every 660,000 residents is bound to take a hefty toll.
Despite all that, our city is about to embark on our own half-assed Field of Dreams adventure. We’re about to put a half-billion dollars of your money on red and let fate spin the wheel, all to answer the question: “If we build it, will anyone come?”
Is that a risk you’re willing to take?
Upon Further Review is the Birmingham Weekly sports page. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org