Birmingham City Council Approves Nearly $1.5 Million to Keep Grand Prix Race in the City Despite Concerns

Questions about budgets consistently being presented to the Birmingham City Council during the time of a vote took center stage in Tuesday’s meeting, including during the discussion of a three-year, $1,496,500 contract with Zoom Motorsports to manage Indy Grand Prix Racing at Barber Motorsports Park.

Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt

The event has been held since 2010 in Birmingham and has an estimated economic impact of $27 million during the race weekend, according to the Zoom representatives who addressed the council. This year’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama will take place from April 21 to 23 at the motor speedway. Several councilors asked to see the company’s budget for the event before voting on the item and asked why the annual payments have increased over the years.

The annual payments, as detailed in the agenda, would amount to $498,7500 for the next three years. Initially, the council paid roughly $300,000 to the company to facilitate the event.

The amounts did not sit well with Councilor Valerie Abbott. She described the expenditure as “one heck of a lot of money considering the other things the city has to do.”

“My concern is that this is a very successful event,” Abbott said. “My thought is we should only use public funds to help get something started. But then after it’s going in a direction I’m not expecting the taxpayer’s money to be propping it up when it doesn’t need propping.”

George Dennis, a representative of Barber Motorsports, clarified that this year’s payment is $350,000 in cash, with the rest being paid through in-kind contributions such as police and other city services for the event.

“Next times this comes up, three years from now – if I’m still here – if I see this number increasing again, I’m not going to vote for it because I don’t think we should be increasing the public’s money going into this. Is it the intent that we be providing this money forever, as long as Indy is coming to Birmingham?” Abbott asked.

“That’s more of a political response you’re looking for. I’ll say this much: Success breeds success,” Dennis said. “There are other opportunities for this event to go other places. Sometimes it’s to our benefit to spend that extra money to attract them. It’s a huge benefit to retain that event.”

The money appropriated by the council represents about 15 percent to 20 percent of the event’s total revenue, said Jon Bachnak with Zoom. The remaining 80 percent comes from private donors and sponsors.

“While we still need public funds, that amount has decreased over the years,” he contended.

Council President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt asked to see how much of the funding would be represented in the overall budget of the event. Neither the representatives from Zoom nor Dennis could immediately provide the budget.

Once the discussion pivoted to which local businesses benefit from the event, Hoyt said he was unfamiliar with the name of the minority business owner who handles the paddock operations at the race.

“I never heard of him,” Hoyt said after being told Charles Thompson, owner of TC Maintenance, is contracted to work the event. “We only got one minority contract out of this and I don’t know who it is.”

Hoyt also complained about the radio stations on which Barber advertises and what he described as a lack of minority-owned stations.

“I’m not going to vote for this,” Hoyt said before tabling the item until a budget could be presented to the council.

Two hours later, the item was picked back up by the council and passed with the sole vote against the resolution coming from Hoyt, who added, “You can’t ask for the city’s help and have inclusion in such a way that benefits the community. This should’ve been dealt with in the committee and got an idea of what this participation looks like. We got to do better than this. We let this happen continuously.”

Despite councilors’ conversation about transparency, the monitors facing the audience that normally display the members’ votes have not been working for several months. Audience members were craning their necks Tuesday to see the vote reflected in the glass doors behind the dais from the monitors that face the council.

BirminghamWatch and Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper are collaborating to cover the Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.