This week, I sat down with perhaps the most vocal opponent to Birmingham’s planned multi-purpose domed facility, Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott. Two weeks ago, Abbott cast the lone “no” vote on the plan to release $8 million in annual funding for the design and construction of the domed stadium. In this interview, Abbott discusses the reasoning behind her vote, as well as gives her take on the BJCC’s need for additional space.
BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: How does it feel to be the lone voice of dissent on the Birmingham City Council with regard to this issue?
VALERIE ABBOTT: Well, it really feels good. Of course, I never like being alone, because it means something that I think is bad for Birmingham has passed. But in this case, I think this is such a bad decision and so poorly thought out that we are going to live to regret it. I think putting a half-billion dollars of taxpayer money into a building like this is even stupider than electronic bingo.
What were some of the reasons that prompted your “no” vote?
Number one, we have far greater priorities we need to work on in the city of Birmingham and spend our money on right now. Number two, which used to be number one, we don’t have any partners to help fund this thing. We’re putting the entire cost on the backs of the citizens of Birmingham and I always come back to the fact that 42 percent of households in Birmingham are living on less than $25,000 per year. So this is just the wrong thing to do for Birmingham and for its residents — to saddle them with the entire half-billion or more in cost, without any help from the private sector, with no help from the state or the county or the feds or anybody else. It just seems like a really, really bad decision. I mean, we’re in a recession, and there’s talk that we might not get out of it for several decades. So is this the best way for us to spend our money right now? I don’t think so.
Those of us who work downtown hear it all the time – no one wants to come down here. They tell us its not safe, or there’s nothing to do down here, etc. Do you think a facility of this nature would transform downtown and change that mindset?
I don’t see it transforming downtown Birmingham, except for the space of land it’s sitting on. It will just be an enormous edifice with not enough parking and no way for people to get there because our mass transit system is so pitiful. But I don’t think it will give new meaning to Birmingham or suddenly make everyone want to be downtown. There have to be events at the dome in order for people to want to go there, they’re not just going to come to admire the architecture, no matter how much money we spend on it.
Jack Fields, the BJCC’s Executive Director and a vocal proponent of the dome, made his case to Weekly readers three weeks ago. He told us that the city desperately needs the exhibition space such a facility would provide. Do you see his side of the argument?
Oh yeah, I do see his side of the argument. I have attended every meeting that they’ve had to discuss the need for a dome — really, their need is for expansion of the civic center, they never asked us to build them a dome — so that they have more space to attract more events and so they can have events going on simultaneously. Now, I am sympathetic and I certainly think that if we had funding partners and weren’t in the middle of a recession, then it might be something we could talk about, especially if the private sector was helping with the funding. There were a few of them standing in the audience at the groundbreaking last week – and there was hardly anybody in the audience – but there were a few executives from local corporations there. But you don’t see any of them putting one thin dime into construction of a dome. So, if it’s such a good idea, why should the taxpayers be picking up 100 percent of the tab?
Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., built a domed stadium in 1990 without first securing a major league team to play in it and they built it with public money, much like Birmingham plans to do. After 20 years of paying on the bond issues, the citizens of Tampa have not yet been able to pay off the stadium, which cost roughly $220 million. At that rate, how long would take to payoff Birmingham’s dome, which is estimated to cost roughly $650 million?
I think it will be 40 or 50 years, and I will be dead. In 50 years, my grandson will be retired and on Social Security and I will have been in my grave for many moons.
You know, this is a great dream. Pie-in-the-sky maybe. Maybe if we had built it back when the MAPS plan came up for a vote, then somebody could have come and occupied it. You know, a professional team revitalizes a city because it gives us something to pull for together. Certainly in Birmingham that would be helpful, since we’re divided into about 35 different municipalities and nobody pulls together on anything. But we don’t have a pro team, and the chances of getting one right now are slim. It’s one heck of a gamble – it’s worse than electronic bingo because we are gambling taxpayer money.
If we don’t have a major-league team beating down our door to get here, or really any other outside forces pushing for the stadium’s completion, then why are we rushing all of a sudden to get this done?
Well, basically, Mayor Langford is the rush. He’s made it this big issue and we’re rushing because he wants to rush. Everything is a rush with him. Every issue is an emergency. I have more of a logical let’s-evaluate-this-and-examine-this approach to this issue.
One reason that we really shouldn’t rush into this is because some people are telling us that the city is $26 million in the red and the mayor is telling us that we have a $26 million surplus. We’re about to take on this project without really knowing whether we are in serious financial trouble or not. The mayor himself admitted to us that had we not agreed to the one-cent tax and doubled business license fees that the city would be in financial trouble. That tells me that we are in financial trouble and that this is not the project we need to be undertaking at this point in time. Considering the state of affairs with the county and the fact that the state is in proration and not doing all that well, it’s hard to believe that Birmingham is doing fine.
And, let’s face it, there are events happening in August of this year that are a part of the driving force for why the council agreed to do this. First, it’s election time. And we all know about Larry’s date with destiny on August 30.
Have you given thought to the possibility that you’re wrong about all this? What if we build it and it’s successful?
I would like to be wrong about this whole thing. Obviously we are rushing here to get this done. And if we do commit the citizens of Birmingham to paying for this thing for the next 40 to 50 years, you know I’d really like to be wrong and have it be a whopping success. I’d love to be wrong about the city budget, too, because it would be much better to have $26 million in surplus than to be $26 million in the hole. I don’t mind being wrong and I don’t mind admitting a mistake when I make one, but I personally don’t think I’ve made a bad decision here. I think if we do build this dome, it is going to be an enormous white elephant and we will end up ruing the day that we went down this path.