Just slightly more than a year ago, Birmingham was faced with a 77 million dollar deficit. The city was reeling from the many misdeeds of former Mayor Larry Langford, and the city government was in shambles. On top of that, we were in the midst of the great recession, which hit all of us hard and created a bleak landscape where progress for the city and hope for a better future seemed distant at best.
Enter William Bell. In his first year in office, we have not only seen progress, but we have seen it in the face of said recession. We are on the cusp of building a downtown baseball stadium that will bring the Birmingham Barons back into the city they once fled. We are looking at a new hotel adjacent to the BJCC that will improve our ability to draw more conventions to the city. Talk of a dome is gone and, instead of pie in the sky proclamations, Bell has made these projects possible with solid logic and sound leadership.
Regional cooperation between the city and surrounding municipalities, a perennial dead issue, now seems possible. Bell is reaching out and attempting to connect with these other communities on critical issues like regional transit.
With a 9 million dollar budget surplus in the first half of the fiscal year, the remarkable transformation of our city outlook can be largely credited to Bell and his administration.
Still, questions linger on how the budget surplus will be allocated and Bell has come under some heat recently about his decision to give city employees a raise.
In the following Q and A, Mayor Bell addresses these concerns and gives us a glimpse into what happens next.
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: Has the location been fully determined for the ballpark?
MAYOR BELL: We have a desire to place it near Railroad Park. There is a question of cost as to that property. We’ve seen a rise in the cost expectations of the property owners in that area, and that’s caused us to take a second look at two or three other sites. We’re not going to be held hostage by saying it’s going to be done in one location only, especially if the cost of the property becomes unreasonable.
What are the other areas are you looking at?
I don’t want to go into that. We’d be faced with the same problem that we have now with property costs, so we’re taking a more measured look at it, but it will be something suitable and appropriate for the ballpark and have a positive impact on the downtown community.
I think the proposed location is just perfect.
Yeah, it is perfect. That’s why the price is going to be high.
When you build it, if you have to displace businesses, what do you offer the business owners for relocation?
It’s an opportunity for the owner to find a better location than what they had before. We’re not just looking at the cost of the land. We’re looking at, “Can we relocate the businesses in the area to a more suitable location, a dream location?” and factor that into the cost itself. We’re not interested in just grabbing up property and running people out. We want to maintain those businesses inside the Birmingham city limits.
One of the businesses that may be affected by the ballpark is Good People Brewery.
We would take that into consideration. We realize some businesses have just recently moved into the area, because it is going to be thriving once we do the things we have anticipated. But for example, that business may be incorporated in the ballpark itself because, when you think of baseball...
Baseball and beer.
So, you know, there are lots of opportunities to explore.
What is the estimated cost?
We’re looking at somewhere between $39 to $49 million dollars, and that is dependent on property prices. That’s the big consideration that we have not been able to tie down yet.
When does construction start on the hotel near the BJCC?
We will break ground January 24. And it’s expected to be a 24-month construction period.
What will the entertainment district look like?
Part of the problem the Civic Center has experienced, in particular in relation to the hotel, is that there’s nothing to do in the area. We’re trying to create amenities and facilities that will support people who come for conferences and conventions. We think that this, for want of a better word, entertainment district, will provide necessary support facilities to the hotel, BJCC and other activities in the area.
So will there be nightclubs or restaurants?
The original scenario the BJCC talked about was nightclubs. I don’t think that will work, because you have to have a continuity of events in order to make that successful. We are looking at restaurants. We are looking at support businesses—gift shops and things of that nature. But it has to be attractive not just to the conference and convention goers, but to the surrounding areas as well.
And there’s the issue of transportation. I know part of your proposed budget goes to Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority.
The main funder of the regional transit system is the city of Birmingham. That should not be the case. It’s impacting our ability to grow the city and provide basic services for the public. It’s our desire to have the state legislature to pass some type of unifying funding formula, so we can create a true regional system that doesn’t place the burden on any one city, but spreads it out over the area. When I see the mayors of Alabaster and Helena talk about not having public transportation, when I see buses breaking down inside the current system, when I see the negative impact that the lack of a world-class system has on our ability to increase economic development, it tells me we all must bear it together to bring a unified system that has a secure funding source in place.
Why is it so difficult to get that done?
You’ll have to ask other people, because I’m on board with trying to get it done. I think there are some outlying areas that feel it doesn’t have an impact on their community, so why should they be burdened with the cost of funding a regionwide system? You have some people who are just opposed to mass transit, period. But you have to have the elected officials understand that’s it’s holding all of us back and that we’ve got to find a way to fund it.
Regarding the proposed city budget, why is it important for Operation New Birmingham and the Birmingham Construction Industry Authority to get funding?
First, ONB has been the driving force in redeveloping downtown. That’s helps us to generate tax dollars needed for the outlying neighborhoods. If we did not have a strong downtown community, we would not have the tax dollars to fill the potholes, build the houses and do the things necessary to strengthen our neighborhoods. ONB has been at the forefront. When I came into office we were faced with a $77 million dollar deficit, and that rolled over into our planning for the next fiscal year, and I stated we were going to cut all outside agency funding. I made a commitment that we would take a look at it at midyear, and this is a fulfillment of that commitment. Now, regarding BCIA, I’ve come under a lot of criticism because my brother is the executive director, of that organization. But a lot of people fail to realize we’re under a court settlement decree that we must fund the BCIA, and that goes back to the settlement of a lawsuit that was filed by the associated general contractors back in 1989. If we don’t fund that organization, the city would face reopening that lawsuit and other legal issues that right now we’re not faced with. In relation to all the other nonprofits we’re funding, it’s my commitment that as we look at the money coming in, that we would then go back and try to restore the money we took away from them, and that includes BCIA as well as ONB.
You’re getting heat from for the 2.5percent raise for city employees. Why now, especially after the budget cuts earlier in the year and a reduced budget deficit?
Apparently people don’t pay any attention to what I say when I say it. I made that commitment, that as the city of Birmingham progressed, we would make sure that anything we took away from our employees, that we would reinstate those things. The goal of my administration is to make sure we keep basic city services, and that we do all we can to provide the best services to the public. In the past, the employees have always experienced a three-percent to six-percent increase every year. We ran into difficulties last year through no fault of the employees. Now that we have some breathing room, I want to show them I’m committed, that by working together, we all will benefit from the city’s progress. And that has a great impact on the morale of the employees. I cannot require them to work extra hard—I don’t know if that’s the proper way of putting it—if they don’t feel they’ll be valued for their input into the city’s growth.
What about downtown? In our previous interview, you said, “When funds are available, there will be money available to increase the number of businesses and bring more people to live downtown.”
There are several factors I look at. In years past, there’s been a wedge driven between downtown and the greater community. Many people saw money being spent in the downtown area as taking funds away from West End, North Birmingham or Roebuck. There was some validity to what they were saying, but the concern we have is that without a viable downtown, the rest of our communities will not grow or thrive. It’s my hope to bridge that gap between the business community—and that’s really what we’re talking about, support for the business community—and the residents who live in the community. To that end, when we initiated what we call a one-to-one program, it was not just about knocking down abandoned homes or cleaning up vacant lots. It was about matching businesses with neighborhoods to show that we’re all in this together, and the businesses should be just as concerned about growth in the neighborhood as the neighborhood should be concerned about growth in the business community. To that end we have recruited a number of private sector businesses and matched them with neighborhoods to show that unity to move forward.
Now, as to investments in the downtown area, it takes more than just the city of Birmingham. You have to have an atmosphere and climate where the private sector is secure and confident in their investments downtown. Admittedly, when I came into office almost a year ago, there was a dark cloud over the city. Many people were concerned whether they should maintain their business here or move elsewhere. What I’ve tried to do is create a more positive atmosphere toward city government and the city of Birmingham, to give people that confidence to reinvest in downtown, in the city as a whole. I think we’ve been successful, but we still have a lot of work to do. It’s my goal to not deal with those things that have divided us in the past, by creating a new atmosphere that we all can thrive and grow together.
The Lyric Theatre is a project that’s near and dear to many people. What’s going to happen?
I’ve had a number of conversations concerning the Lyric Theatre, both locally and in Washington, D.C. We’re trying to attract some federal dollars to support that project. We’re trying to, again, create that atmosphere that the private sector will help fund the Lyric redevelopment. The city’s committed to working with them.
What’s another big emphasis for the city, besides the ballpark and the hotel?
It’s my goal to connect the dots. We have an expansion of the Baptist Princeton Hospital on the west side of our city. We’ve got to find a way to connect what’s taken place downtown with the growth that’s taken place at Baptist Princeton, and fill in the gap to have a positive impact on those neighborhoods in between.
We’ve been talking with Wendy Jackson and the Freshwater Land Trust about creating a linear park that will run through many of those neighborhoods west and southwest of downtown. That’s important, because it takes that positive concept of what’s taken place at the Railroad Park and it spreads it through the other neighborhoods. We’re looking at, “How can we have an economic development impact, similar to what’s taken place in the downtown area, in the Five Points West community?” One of the projects that’s going to have a tremendous impact on that western area is the development of the Fair Park Arena that will hold major track and field events. That’s going to have an economic development impact. We’re talking to hotels about coming into the area. We’re talking to restaurant chains. We’re looking at the expansion of businesses already in that area who are looking at larger spaces. It’s those types of developments that we’re looking at to have an impact throughout the city of Birmingham.
We had representatives from Washington, D.C., both from the government and economic development entities, come look at North Birmingham—what help we can get for the old Carraway [Hospital] property. That’s going be one of my focal points as to how we can bring new life to that property. On the eastern side of town, the Roebuck/Huffman area was a thriving area, and it’s still thriving, but it’s not the engine that it was. We’ve got to find ways to bring greater economic development activity, and I emphasize economic activity because that’s the only way we’re going to continue to have a rise in taxes available to us, to be able to do those positive things that they want to see us do in the neighborhoods.
Is the perception of Birmingham already changing for the better, with the completion of projects like Railroad Park?
The one thing I have found in my year as mayor [is that] people want success, want to be a part of something successful. The more opportunities you can give people to be a part of something successful, the more success you’ll have. And it’s about building a team. As it relates to my staff, as it relates to organizations, as it relates to individuals in companies, everybody wants to be a part of a successful Birmingham. When you pick up the phone and call friends in California and New York, you want to say with pride, “I’m calling from Birmingham, Alabama.” And that means a lot to everyone, and it’s my goal as the head cheerleader for the city to give us something to rally around, something to be a part of in moving us forward.
Chuck Leishman is the publisher of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com.