The agenda for the July 18 meeting of the Birmingham City Council didn’t seem to leave much room for contention, with all but two items designated as part of the usually routine and non-controversial consent agenda. But several consent items regarding business development loans pushed the meeting into a lengthy and occasionally heated discussion, which, one councilor suggested, was driven in part by next month’s municipal elections.
A trio of proposals concerning Inland Seafood, an Atlanta-based company that describes itself as “the largest seafood distributor in the Southeast,” dominated the meeting’s discussion. The company operates a small processing plant and office in Ensley, and at Tuesday’s meeting it was looking for approval for several loans and grants that would enable the Ensley plant to expand. Representatives from the company said the expansion would allow them to create up to 150 jobs in the area over the next 10 years.
A $275,000 grant to Inland Seafood, taken from the city’s Community Development Block Grant fund, was approved as part of the consent agenda. But two other proposed loans – each for $2 million – were removed from the consent agenda and became the subject of argument among the councilors.
The first of those two loans also would be taken from Birmingham’s Community Development Block Grant funds, which are given to the city by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to the HUD website, cities may use some of that funding as federally guaranteed loans for projects “to inspire private economic activity, providing the initial resources or simply the confidence that private firms and individuals may need to invest in distressed areas.” The second loan, which would come from the Birmingham Business Development Loan Program, required a separate ordinance to increase the maximum loan amount allowed by the program from $1 million to $2 million.
Council President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt expressed skepticism about the loan, citing a previous $1 million grant the city had given Inland Seafood. That the company had hired only five employees from that grant, he said, was “not good.” That only one of those five employees was from Ensley also concerned Hoyt, and he declared early in the discussion that he did not intend to vote to approve the loans.
Job Fair, Farmer’s Market, Training Center Planned
Inland Seafood Executive Vice President Robert Novotny argued that the company was “fully engaged in participating in the Ensley community.” He said the company was planning to establish a job fair, farmer’s market and culinary training center at the site of the expansion. Lisa Cooper, director of economic development for the mayor’s office, said the training center would serve students, including some from Jefferson State and Lawson State community colleges.
Novotny said that Inland Seafood bringing more jobs to Ensley would be dependent on the loan. “As soon as (this loan) is approved, we will hire,” Novotny said. “I can’t guarantee that everyone will come from Ensley, but we are going to try everything possible to get people from that community.”
Councilor Kim Rafferty suggested that the skill level of workers in the area might have contributed to few of them being hired. A recent skills assessment by the Birmingham Business Alliance, she said, showed, “Our constituents are underskilled for employment opportunities in the city” due to “blank spots in our education system.” Rafferty suggested implementing a skills training program in Birmingham city schools “to ensure that these skills are covered, so that when these companies come in, we can provide the best-trained employees right off the bat so that we don’t have to struggle with them making excuses about why they don’t hire our citizens.”
Rafferty’s statement drew ire from Councilors Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson.
“That is about the craziest statement that I ever heard,” Scales said. “If you were more involved in the city business in terms of your district, maybe you could know that we actually have smart citizens … . Any leader that represents the city (who says) your folk aren’t educated enough for a job, that is crazy … . That’s offensive … . You just don’t say that about your own constituents.”
Tyson, meanwhile, said Rafferty’s comment had racial undertones. “Saying that citizens in the district (are) too dumb to apply for a job, that’s a racial statement,” she said. “Knowing you come out of a black community, you don’t do that!”
Speaking after the meeting, Rafferty, who is white, said, “Race was not a part of my statement.” The BBA assessment, she said, showed that “employers are still struggling to find higher-skilled employees for IT and other high-tech manufacturing positions … . I feel the city should be doing more to meet the demand, and we are not coordinating to do that long-term. We seem to be more reactionary or situational in our efforts.”
As the discussion surrounding the loans wound down, Scales said she hoped that more investments would be made “in the neighborhoods that need the money … . You need a small business like this to invest back into distressed communities. And it’s not hard. … How much more money do we have in development so that we can get to developing?” She paused. “It is an election year,” she added. “I want (the communities) to get all they can.”
Ultimately, the council members present – even Hoyt – voted unanimously to approve the loans, as well as to approve raising the maximum amount of business development loans.
Travel Expenses OK’d
The council also voted to approve travel expenses for William Parker to attend “meetings with federal officials regarding grant incentives” in Washington, D.C., totaling $2,301.54; and for Kelli Solomon, executive assistant to the mayor, to attend a meeting of the International Association of Administrative Professionals in New Orleans, totaling $2,271.10. As always, Councilor Valerie Abbott provided the lone dissenting vote.