Feb. 6, 2018 — The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to support the construction of a new multi-purpose facility at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
The vote followed a lengthy back-and-forth among the council, Mayor Randall Woodfin and members of the public, with proponents arguing that the development will bring much-needed revenue into the city and opponents expressing skepticism about the necessity of the proposed 30-year, $90 million investment.
The BJCC expansion and renovation, which would include the construction of a new open-air stadium, would be funded by a mix of public and private sources. The city is slated to contribute $3 million a year for 30 years to the stadium; the BJCC Authority will pay $10.7 in annual debt service; UAB and private entities will contribute $4 million a year for 10 years; the Jefferson County government will pay $1 million a year for 30 years; and a proposed increase to the city’s rental car tax, still pending in the state Legislature, would account for $3.5 million in annual funding for 30 years.
Woodfin and Council President Valerie Abbott both emphasized that Tuesday’s vote was not for a specific contract or to allocate any funds, but rather a general statement of willingness to negotiate a specific plan. A Q-and-A between District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt and Woodfin, published online Monday, highlighted that many of the details have yet to be set in concrete.
Woodfin compared the resolution to a marriage proposal. “A person asking you to marry (them) is very different from the process of a prenuptial agreement,” he said.
Still, public reaction to the proposal at the meeting was mixed. Some reactions were extreme — the first speaker compared Woodfin first to Bull Connor, then to Adolf Hitler — but most expressed measured concern.
“I was almost angry when I heard the first details of the proposed stadium,” said community activist Iva Williams. “The more I asked questions, the more I looked into it, the more I somewhat wrapped my mind around supporting it … . I think a lot of citizens want to get behind this stadium, (but) you’re not answering any questions. You’re not helping us wrap our arms around it.”
What About Legion Field?
Most concerns, both from the public and the council, focused on Legion Field, the 91-year-old football stadium on the west end of the city.
“I think a lot of people could get behind the stadium if we knew there was some support for the Old Gray Lady,” Williams said.
District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales echoed Williams’ concerns. Scales, who was not present for Woodfin’s Jan. 31 presentation of the BJCC’s proposal, said she was “hurt” that Legion Field and its surrounding community were once again being overlooked by the city. In December, the council delayed $30 million in proposed renovations to the stadium. Those proposed renovations never resurfaced on the council’s agenda, and in January the council moved $100,000 that had been allocated to Legion Field’s upkeep to lobbying efforts for the proposed rental car tax bill.
Scales said that the BJCC project was yet another example of the city ignoring the poorer neighborhoods on the west side of the city in favor of the downtown area.
“I wanted to be on a team that was for everybody,” she said. “Mr. Mayor, if you build this stadium where you have Legion Field, I will be your best cheerleader … . But if we’re not going to do that, I think it is a disservice to the poor people.”
Scales compared the plan to the policies of Woodfin’s predecessor, William Bell, who had controversially compared the downtown area to a “living room” that needs to be “nice when company comes,” and other neighborhoods as “that one room in the back of the house … that you don’t want anyone to see.”
“Man, I’ve heard this before,” she said. “This is the living room conversation again, but the kitchen and the bathroom are still dirty.”
Proponents, however, argued that the BJCC expansion would help a poorer north Birmingham neighborhood, Druid Hills, where the stadium would be located.
“It’s a major shot in the arm for north Birmingham,” said Council President Pro Tem Jay Roberson, who described the stadium as “$90 million invested into Druid Hills.”
“When the first shovel goes in the ground, jobs will be created for the citizens of Birmingham,” Roberson said. Woodfin had previously told the council that the expansion would “generate 147 new positions” in Birmingham.
“It’s a part of neighborhood revitalization,” Roberson said.
“We’re Not Talking About an Investment in a Stadium Alone”
When he initially proposed the project to the council on Jan. 31, Woodfin pledged that all revenue generated from the stadium — which could be between $5.5 million and $9.9 million, if the area around the BJCC were developed, according to the BJCC — would be earmarked for a neighborhood revitalization fund. It was a promise he reiterated during Tuesday’s council meeting.
The city’s $420 million operating budget, he said, had never been enough to fund neighborhood revitalization efforts like street paving or removing dilapidated structures, each of which he estimated would require $50 million.
“We’re not talking about an investment in a stadium alone,” Woodfin said. “I’ve got to find money to pave streets. I’ve got to find money to get rid of these dilapidated structures. I’ve got to find money to support real neighborhood revitalization … . It doesn’t exist today. We can go cut a lot of money (from our existing budget) and take away a lot of things we have, or we can borrow a lot of money, but I don’t think that’s an idea that any of us want to take. I think the return off this gets us where we need.”
“An Arms Race for Entertainment”
Another motivation for the construction of the new stadium, according to proponents, is keeping Birmingham’s entertainment and tourism industries competitive with other cities in the Southeast. The new stadium, BJCC CEO and Executive Director Tad Snider told the council Jan. 31, would host between 20 and 23 events annually.
Woodfin mentioned “two major tenants” of the BJCC who were “ready to leave (and) being courted by others.” He didn’t specify which tenants he was referring to, but he implied the proposed updates would keep them in Birmingham.
“Let me spell it out for you,” he said. “There are other cities around us in driving distance … that are building or expanding on their facilities.”
That urgent sense of competition was echoed by District 9 Councilor John Hilliard.
“We are in an arms race for entertainment, for sports, for economic development,” Hilliard said. “When are we going to take the field and fight for our city? Well, Mr. Mayor, I’m going to take that call.”
“None of Us Think This is a Slam Dunk”
As the discussion wrapped up, Abbott said that she was not 100 percent behind the project but intended to vote in favor of it nonetheless.
“All of us have problems with certain aspects … . None of us think that this is a slam dunk. The devil is in the details, and the reason that this is a resolution of intent is because some details haven’t been worked out. There are some details that could cause the demise of this project … . We have gathered enough information to say we will fund this project if all our criteria are met.”
Abbott also expressed a sense of exhaustion with the topic of a stadium, and argued that moving forward with it would at least allow them to focus on other projects.
“We’ve been talking about this project since before our mayor was born,” she said. “We’ve talked it to death. “I’d love for us to have a new topic to talk about … . anything but this.”
At the end of the discussion, the council voted to approve the resolution. Seven of the members who were present voted in favor of the resolution; Scales abstained. District 6 Councilor Sheila Tyson was absent.
Snider, speaking after the meeting, called the passage of the resolution “fantastic,” but he said it was “way too early” to estimate when construction on the project would begin.