In Soap-Making and Landscaping, ‘Creative’ Entrepreneurs Get Help Building Business Skills from Co.Starters
A designer, a scuba diver, an art curator, a furniture maker. They all share something in common – seeking and receiving help with the business side of their creative work from the Co.Starters program of Create Birmingham.
The Co.Starters program – prompted by research and aimed at unlocking economic potential – has 200 graduates and a new class of 15 people following their dreams to turn their passions into sustainable and thriving small businesses.
With graduates pursuing the business side of everything from massage therapy to landscaping, Co.Starters is a 10-week business training program designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with insights, relationships and tools to turn their business ideas into action, said Buddy Palmer, CEO of Create Birmingham, the nonprofit that administers the program. The organization is dedicated to the development of Birmingham’s creative industries that contribute to economic growth as well as enhance quality of life.
The 15 students, who meet on Monday nights, represent the 17th Co.Starters class since the program began in 2014 after a comprehensive study of the area’s creative industries and occupations.
Gathered around a U-shaped table at Woodlawn’s Social Venture building, members of Co.Starters’ fall 2018 class take turns telling about their week’s highs and lows and the number of customer conversations they logged for the week.
“My high for this week is this,” says Co.Starters student Joy Smith. She shows a glossy page of Birmingham Magazine’s food issue, in which a tempting slice of cheesecake from Smith’s Sorelle catering business is pictured as one of the 40 best treats in Birmingham. Her classmates applaud, then tell about their week’s progress, contacts made and business plans drafted. Read more.
Long before she enrolled in Birmingham’s Co.Starters program, Kim Lee had the dream and business plan for what eventually became The Forge, a downtown professional coworking space on the mezzanine level of the historic Pizitz Building. Read more.
Straight-Party Voting Shows Increasing Political Polarization in Alabama, Controlled Outcome of Some Races
Alabama voters are casting straight-ticket ballots in growing numbers, highlighting a trend toward political polarization in the state.
That move was on full display in Tuesday’s election and appeared to be a critical factor in the outcome of some races.
About 65 percent of those who participated in the general election voted straight tickets, according to totals from the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. Read more.
Alabama, not unlike the rest of the country, had a wave of women on the ballot in this year’s primary election and in Tuesday’s general election.
Eighty-three Republican and Democratic women and two independent women ran for state office, including offices elected statewide and circuit judgeships. Forty-four of those women won their races.
In all, Alabama added six women to the count of state offices and circuit judgeships held by women. Three of those seats are circuit judgeships; two are seats in the House of Representatives and one is on the Alabama Board of Education.
Republican women fared well Tuesday. Of the 23 women who ran for those offices, 20, or 87 percent, won.
Terry Lathan, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Gov. Kay Ivey’s win was an important factor that will help contribute to more women running for office.
“With Governor Ivey breaking the glass ceiling as the first elected GOP female Alabama governor,” Lathan said in statement, “we will continue to recruit and expand our base of women candidates.”
For Democratic women, who made up 71 percent of all the women who ran, the outcomes looked different. Sixty Democratic women ran, with 24, 42 percent, winning their races.
Nancy Worley, chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party, had a different take, chalking up many of the losses to inexperienced candidates with unrealistic expectations. Read more.
Everyone Knew It Was Coming, But Sessions’ Ouster From the Justice Department so Soon After the Mid-Terms Landed With a Boom
Barely 12 hours after the smoke had cleared from the 2018 mid-term elections, another political bomb exploded Wednesday afternoon when news came that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had resigned at the request of President Donald Trump.
That Sessions was on his way out was not a shock. The former U.S. senator from Mobile had been one of the first well-known supporters of Trump in the presidential campaign. But shortly after he took the cabinet position, he became a thorn in Trump’s side by recusing himself from supervising the investigation into collusion by Russia during the 2016 election.
Trump chafed at the move by Sessions both publicly and privately, accusing Sessions of being disloyal and not acting in Trump’s defense. The rift grew during the two years Sessions served in the post.
Sessions’ departure had been expected for months, though political advisers told Trump to wait until after the mid-terms. He did so, barely — Sessions was told by Chief of Staff Mike Kelly to hand in his resignation on Wednesday afternoon, and he did.
Reaction to Sessions’ stepping down was quick, most of it praising Sessions or speculating on his next moves and what they could mean for politics in the state. Read more.
BirminghamWatch Recommends: A Roundup of Stories on Sessions’ Firing
Jeff Sessions Executed the Agenda of a President Who Could Not Look Past a Betrayal (New York Times)
Jeff Sessions Pushed out After a Year of Attacks From Trump (Associated Press)
How Sessions’s Firing Could Affect the Russia Investigation (New York Times)
‘You’re Fired:’ A Timeline of Team Trump Departures (Washington Post)
Gov. Kay Ivey turned back Democratic challenger Walt Maddox on Tuesday and led the Republican ticket to a clean sweep of statewide races in Alabama.
“The people of Alabama have spoken loud and clear: We want to keep Alabama on the right track and keep Alabama working,” Ivey declared before cheering supporters Tuesday night at a Montgomery hotel.
“It is with immense gratitude that I stand before you tonight as the next governor of Alabama. … Tonight, today, together we have made history — the first Republican woman to be elected governor.” Read more.
Mayor Randall Woodfin called for greater civility between his office and Birmingham City Council on Tuesday, following weeks of escalating tension. The tension culminated with Woodfin and most of his staff being absent from the council’s Oct. 30 meeting.
While calling for civility, Woodfin also announced plans to reduce his staff’s presence at council meetings. He said this is an effort to improve efficiency and to spend more time on community outreach.
Last week’s absence of Woodfin and his staff drew considerable criticism from councilors, some of whom called it “a slap in the face to the constituents of the 99 neighborhoods.” Read more.
The Birmingham City Council appears set to oppose construction of the controversial Cahaba Beach road and bridge project across the Little Cahaba River.
The Little Cahaba flows from the Lake Purdy reservoir a quarter-mile upstream from the project to the larger Cahaba River, where the Birmingham Water Works Board takes water for treatment.
A majority of council members, meeting as a committee-of-the-whole on Monday, voted to recommend against connecting Cahaba Beach Road off U.S. 280 to Sicard Hollow Road in Shelby County and to the Liberty Park development in Vestavia. The vote included a total of seven council members, President Valerie Abbott among them. A full council vote is set for Nov. 20.
Representatives of environmental groups at the meeting said the road is an “unnecessary convenience road for a few” that “should not outweigh the risks to the quality and cost of a main drinking water source for 600,000 people.”
The Alabama Department of Transportation and Shelby County engineers are pushing to extend Cahaba Beach Road across a new bridge to Sicard Hollow Road in Shelby County. Representatives of those entities did not attend Monday’s meeting.
Rhiannon Reese of Crisis Center Birmingham says she doesn’t want to play the blame game about sexual assault kits not submitted for analysis to Alabama’s forensic lab.
The clinical director and rape response coordinator of Crisis Center Birmingham was reacting to an inventory that shows that the Birmingham Police Department handled about 87 percent of the sexual assault kits provided by Jefferson County women since 1985 but not passed on for forensic analysis. The inventory was conducted by the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative of the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.
“I don’t want to say, ‘Well, this is so and so’s fault,’” Reese said. “I know that the people that are doing the investigations right now are not the people that were there, like in the ’80s and ’90s, or even the early 2000s. They weren’t the ones who let this happen.”
The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative points a questioning finger at the Birmingham Police Department.
An inventory of 3,944 sexual assault kits provided to Birmingham police found that 3,391 were not submitted for testing. That’s nearly 86 percent of the kits provided to Birmingham police found in that inventory.
The inventory of rape kits for all the law enforcement jurisdictions in Jefferson County found 3,876 of 4,999 were not submitted to be analyzed by the forensics agency. Read more.
Amazon held the official groundbreaking Tuesday for its first large-scale fulfillment center in Alabama, on a site just off Powder Plant Road in Bessemer.
Dozens of state and local officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey, came to put shovels into a long mound and fling red dirt into the air.
“This is a great day for Bessemer, a great day for Amazon and a great day for the state of Alabama,” Ivey said. “Momentum is on our side and that’s made possible when companies like Amazon choose to locate and do business in our great state.”
When complete, the $325 million facility – which will have the footprint of nearly 15 football fields – will employ 1,500 people with a starting minimum wage of $15 and company benefits that start on Day 1. Read more.
Many Alabama employees aren’t being screened to confirm their legal status to work in the United States, despite a 2011 state law requiring businesses to use the federal E-Verity system.
A recent report in the publication Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, said only 60 percent of new Alabama hires were screened with E-Verify in the year ending in June 2017. That’s up from 14 percent in 2011, before the state’s anti-illegal immigration law went into effect.
Now, state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, proposes requiring employers to prove their E-Verify usage before obtaining business licenses. He has a bill ready for the 2019 legislative session that mirrors a law in Georgia, where 94 percent of employees were screened through E-Verify, according to Pew.
Orr recently said there will always be bad actors who don’t follow the law, but he thinks some businesses are simply ignorant about it.
“They don’t know about the law or don’t think it applies to them,” Orr said. “Until someone is telling them or reminding them, they’ll continue to be ignorant.”
Despite the city’s rising homicide rate and a recent rash of highly publicized violent crimes, Birmingham-area law enforcement officials say they are optimistic about the city’s long-term crime-fighting prospects, due in part to an array of government agencies working together.
After a violent start to September, which saw seven homicides in its first eight days, Birmingham is on track to have its deadliest year in decades. As of Sept. 20, there have been 86 reported homicides this year, compared to the 79 counted at this point last year, which was the deadliest year for the city since 1994.
“It’s too high for sure,” said Jay Town, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, which is centered in Birmingham. “It makes you wonder if we weren’t putting all of this effort … I shudder to think where those numbers might be.”
Town, who has been on the job for roughly 13 months, said he has worked to develop a “vertical” model of law enforcement that includes federal, state, county and local departments. It’s a model, he said, that can serve as a crime-fighting method going forward.
“The only promise I can make is that we are establishing long-term processes, and it takes time,” he said. “As much as we would like in the Magic City to have crime disappear overnight, we are taking the painstaking efforts to make sure that there are systems and methods and processes in place that are going to last a lot longer than any of us.” Read more.
Six homicides happened in Birmingham during the first week of September, putting the city firmly on track for its most violent year in more than two decades and pressuring city leaders to improve their strategies for responding to such incidents and to focus on preventing them.
The first homicide of the month was the highly publicized death of 16-year-old Woodlawn High School student Will Edwards, who was killed in his North East Lake home just after midnight Sept. 1. The following evening, seven teenagers were shot during a gunfight at the downtown music venue WorkPlay, though none were killed.
Mayor Randall Woodfin described the weekend’s incidents of youth violence as a “devastating blow to our community.”
By the end of the first week, five more homicides had been reported by the Birmingham Police Department, four of which happened within a 24-hour period. Just minutes after the week ended, the city already had logged its first homicide of week two. It wasn’t the most homicides that have taken place in a single week this year — that would be an eight-homicide stretch between July 29 and August 4 — but it has placed Birmingham firmly on track to have its deadliest year in recent memory.
BirminghamWatch Graphic: Clay Carey
The Oliver Robinson bribery trial, in which guilty verdicts were issued for officials of Drummond Coal Co. and its law firm, Balch & Bingham, revealed a gritty episode about avoiding environmental cleanup in North Birmingham. But there’s a bigger dirty picture.
The vast majority of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.
The findings show 71 percent of the major pollution sources are in areas with incomes below the median income for the county.
Only one primary source of pollution is in a neighborhood with a median household income greater than 110 percent of the county median.
Residents of the same low-income areas also often are largely African American. Research has shown that economically depressed populations can be more heavily affected by the negative health effects of air pollution.
Poor air does not equally strike everyone in the Birmingham area, raising issues of environmental justice. Read more.
The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.
In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.
Big-box retailers come in several types and brand names. The biggest of them all, though, is Walmart. The largest private employer in the world, Walmart grew from its roots in Arkansas to be a major force in virtually every part of the United States. In Alabama alone, 38,000 people are employed by Walmart.
Tens of millions of customers across America walk through the doors of the company’s stores every day. In Alabama, cities that have a Walmart get taxes on sales to those customers, which helps pay for services such as police and fire protection. Walmart’s website states the company collected $684.6 million in sales taxes and fees in Alabama for the fiscal year ending in 2017 and paid another $92.1 million in its own additional taxes and fees.
Dependence on sales taxes is unusual compared to most other states and harkens back to Alabama’s early days as a state that was almost entirely rural and dependent on the production of cotton and timber. Property taxes are lower than in other states, in some cases much lower, especially on agricultural and forest lands. Read more.
A Tale of Two Jefferson County Cities: Sales Tax Comes and Sometimes Goes
By Robert Carter
Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland is one of the city officials who work to attract retailers of all shapes and sizes – and their sales taxes.
He said he spends time trying to bring in retailers “every single day.” According to figures provided by City Clerk Melissa Honeycutt, Gardendale derives 70 percent of its tax receipts from sales taxes.
It’s a different story in Fairfield, about 20 miles away. Fairfield was once a thriving city and home to a massive U.S. Steel factory complex and numerous shopping centers. After the factory closed, the stores followed. When the Walmart there closed, it took about a third of what was left of the city’s tax revenues, according to the mayor. Read more.
BW Expands Economic Development Coverage
Robert Carter covers economic development in Birmingham and Alabama, a new assignment in 2018. He is a veteran journalist, both with newspapers and in radio. A Kentucky native, Carter began working at his hometown Glasgow Daily Times straight out of high school. He also worked with Christian Family Radio in Bowling Green and with Western Kentucky University’s public radio service. In Alabama, Carter has worked at The Birmingham News and The North Jefferson News in Gardendale.
Trey Glenn resigned Sunday as EPA Region 4 administrator for Alabama and seven other southeastern states following his indictment on multiple felony ethics charges last week in Jefferson County.
EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler accepted Glenn’s resignation, according to Region 4 chief of staff Ryan Jackson.
Glenn and former business partner Scott Phillips were arrested and posted bond following their indictments. They denied guilt in the charges. Glenn in his resignation letter called the charges unfounded.
Glenn and Phillips were caught up in the recent bribery scandal over pollution in north Birmingham that brought down former state Rep. Oliver Robinson and officials of Drummond Co. and law firm Balch and Bingham. Robinson pleaded guilty to charges and testified against Drummond executive David Robertson and Balch attorney Joel Gilbert. Read more.
When newly elected Neil Rafferty takes his place in the Alabama House of Representatives next year, he will be the only white Democrat in the 105-seat chamber
With one other white Democrat in the Senate, the Alabama Legislature’s two parties are almost entirely divided by race. An all-white GOP has a supermajority.
“You can’t deny the optics at times,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said about the party and racial split. He’s been a lawmaker since 2006 and has seen the racial polarization increase as the white Democrats dwindled in numbers.
Less than 10 years ago, in the 2006-2010 term, there were 62 Democrats in the House. More than half of them were white, said House public information officer Clay Redden. Now, there are 28 Democrats total. Republicans picked up five more seats in last week’s election.
In all, more than 75 percent of the members of the Legislature were white less than a decade ago, and more than 60 percent were Democrats, according to an analysis done at the time by The Birmingham News.
Being the minority race in the minority party isn’t something Rafferty, D-Birmingham, said he’s thought too much about.
“I’m going to go down there with humility and an eagerness and willingness to work with my colleagues, all of my colleagues, for the betterment of the state and House District 54,” he said last week.
But race has been an issue in the Statehouse in recent years.
England is concerned that, without diversity among parties, all issues begin to be viewed in a racial context.
“Racial issues are important, they are, but not everything is racial,” he said. “You don’t want everything to be painted with a broad brush because of the messenger and lose the message.” Read more.
Jefferson County’s first black sheriff and district attorney were swept into office Tuesday on a wave of Democratic straight-ticket voting.
Votes from the county’s Republican strongholds were not enough to combat the unusually high number of Democrats casting straight-party ballots, votes from inner-city Birmingham, votes by dissatisfied Democrats in the county’s larger cities and possibly votes by Republican women protesting President Donald Trump.
“I think the numbers say that straight-ticket voting greatly benefited the Democrats more than Republicans,” said Jefferson County Board of Registrars Chairman Barry Stephenson.
After weeks of contentious discussion, it’s official: Wardine Alexander is the newest member of the Birmingham City Council, filling the District 7 seat formerly held by Jay Roberson. Her appointment, as well as the election of District 4 Councilor William Parker as president pro tempore, marks the end of a deadlock between two factions of the council.
But it also came amid an escalating feud between the council and Mayor Randall Woodfin who, along with most of his staff, was conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s meeting — prompting some councilors to say that they were “shocked” and “outraged” by what they called a display of “petty politics.”
In his book “The Infamous Birmingham Axe Murders,” journalist Jeremy Gray has a hell of a story to tell. From 1919 to 1924, as many as 18 people were killed and 16 injured in a series of brutal attacks. A number of the victims were Italian grocers killed when their stores were robbed.
The killings were not the work of a single killer or group of killers, and not all the victims were attacked with axes (one victim was beaten to death with a shovel, another with a metal pipe) but the spree of murders panicked Birmingham and stirred the nasty specters of race, class and religious bigotry.
The police and the newspapers focused on African-American suspects and, because several of the victims were Italian, the Mafia. The Birmingham Age-Herald offered readers a completely made up serial killer, publishing a racist cartoon of an axe-wielding black man dubbed “Henry the Hacker.” With the approval of the police, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through African-American neighborhoods at night hoping to intimidate potential black criminals. Read more.
Tensions continued through the week between a Birmingham City Council member and Mayor Randall Woodfin over the council’s Tuesday decision not to contribute $1 million over five years to the Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter.
That proposal is no longer on the table; the council voted it down at its Oct. 23 meeting. But Woodfin and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt continued to trade barbs in one of the most high-profile public disagreements between the mayor and council since Woodfin took office nearly a year ago. Read more.
Amid calls from employees to fire Executive Director Floyd Council, the Birmingham Public Library’s board of trustees voted instead to submit a “corrective action plan” to the embattled administrator. Board members refused to give any details about what that plan would entail, classifying it as a private personnel matter.
The board also voted to approve its first-year evaluation of the executive director — the details of which were also not disclosed — with a recommendation “to develop a specific performance improvement plan.”
In short, Council — who was not present at the meeting and who has refused to discuss the situation with the press — will keep his job for now. His one-year probationary period, during which the board can fire him without cause, will end before the board’s next regular meeting, on Nov. 13. Read more.
Erica Dunning is proud of her tidy house, built by Habitat for Humanity in a quiet Chalkville neighborhood, and her job working for Jefferson County. But she’s not too proud to admit that, once upon a time, she needed help to make ends meet.
That help particularly made it possible for Dunning to pay her electric bills, which could become out of reach at certain times a year. And that’s where the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – known by the acronym LIHEAP – came in.
August, which is typically expected in Alabama to be the hottest month of any year, was LIHEAP Awareness month, the month set aside to demonstrate the value of the program. But you don’t have to convince Dunning, who used the program when she was down on her luck and not working, she said.
“It just helps you get over that slump,” she said. “Now I am employed by Jefferson County… but I have used the program to get over that slump. And it’s just good to know you’ve got help.”
Dunning, who has two children, also has a house that uses electricity for both heating and cooling, as opposed to using natural gas in the winter, as many do.
“Without power, how do you get your kids ready for school?” she said.
While shortfalls can happen any time of the year, Dunning said it was particularly hard around Christmas. “You don’t want to disappoint your kids at the time, so you just try and be balanced and make sure they have at least something for Christmas.”
LIHEAP helped make that possible, she said.
This year’s awareness month arrived with the program under threat from the Trump administration, which has proposed eliminating what many low-income residents have come to depend on to keep their air conditioning going in the summer and heat on during the winter.
Thousands of people in Jefferson County depend on LIHEAP, which is administered by the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity. Some 5,000 families are served each summer and another 5,000 each winter, said Dorothy Crosby, who works in the Energy Assistance arm of JCCEO.
But where those residents see a lifeline, the Trump administration sees a drain on federal resources subject to fraud.
“The Budget proposes to eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in order to reduce the size and scope of the Federal Government, and better target resources within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families,” the Trump administration wrote in its budget proposal for 2019. “LIHEAP is a Federal program that has been known to have sizeable fraud and abuse, leading to program integrity concerns.” Read more.
Alex Flachsbart’s business cards were hot properties at the Jefferson County Courthouse Tuesday after his presentation to the County Commission about opportunity zones in the area.
The founder and CEO of the nonprofit Opportunity Alabama briefed the commission on his group’s work with Opportunity Zones, which encourage investment in low-income areas.
“Our goal is to rally the ecosystem here in the state of Alabama around opportunism,” he said.
Flachsbart, a former tax attorney, said the zones were created with the passage of the tax bill in December. The idea is to give tax breaks to investors who put their money into a fund that then invests in businesses and real estate projects in low-income areas. The incentives grow the longer the money stays invested, he said.
“(It goes) all the way to the point where if you’re an investor who keeps their money in a fund that’s invested in the local community for 10 years or longer, you don’t pay any tax at all on the appreciation of your investment,” he said. “If I make a good bet on a place like Ensley, or a place like East Lake or a place like Fultondale, the good news (is) that, if my investment substantially improves, I get to walk away tax-free after 10 years.” Read more.
Even with more athletic fields at the Hoover Met Complex, greater Birmingham needs additional sports facilities to compete with cities such as Westfield, Indiana and Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Never heard of those cities? If you have a child who competes on a “travel ball” team, you probably have. A study commissioned by the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau says that those two cities are Birmingham’s primary competitors for large sports tournaments.
The bureau released the study’s findings Sept. 27. It was conducted by Phoenix-based Huddle Up Sports and is based on a survey of available sports venues in metro Birmingham. The company also conducted interviews with various stakeholders in the sports tourism industry, a segment of the local economy that caters not just to college and professional sports organizers and fans but also to followers of youth and amateur sports tournaments that bring in hundreds of teams, competitors, families and officials.
Although metro Birmingham has made a big push in sports tourism, it still is falling behind other cities, some of which are much smaller in population but which have gone all-in on the burgeoning sports tourism sector. Read more.