Oct. 31, 2017 — The Birmingham City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to revoke the business license of a violence-prone Five Points South nightclub, but discussion over funding for the Birmingham Urban League drove the meeting in a much more contentious direction, revealing potential fault lines among the council’s new lineup.
The decision to revoke Skky Lounge’s business license came at the end of a discussion that lasted more than an hour. Members of the Birmingham Police Department, the Five Points South Community and the public at large called for Skky’s removal, and the club’s owner and his attorney pushed back against what they called “strong exaggeration” of Skky’s negative impact on the Five Points South neighborhood.
The public hearing was prompted by violence that has been linked to the nightclub — in particular, a Sept. 2 shooting that left two men injured, a Memorial Day altercation inside the club and a May 2016 shooting that left one man injured.
Opponents of Skky Lounge said the violence has driven business out of Five Points South and put civilians in danger.
Birmingham Police Captain Ronald Sellers described the club as a “drain on resources.”
“We’re having to close down multiple beats when this club is letting out,” he said. “We’re using multiple cars to block the street when people are coming out of the club … . We’re spending thousands of dollars.”
City Council President Valerie Abbott echoed his concerns. “This club has created an atmosphere of fear in Five Points South,” she said. “When people are afraid, they don’t come around anymore. It’s long past time to take action.”
But Skky attorney Henry Walker argued that people were “taking three incidents and universalizing them into an everyday occurrence.”
“What I’m suggesting to you is that there is strong exaggeration of the amount of problems that take place at Skky, Inc.,” Walker continued. He argued that Skky’s security is just as strong as the security at Boston’s Logan International Airport — and that even that airport’s security overlooked a few terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.
Dan Cooper, the nightclub’s owner, called arguments for Skky’s closure “just not logical.” Cooper, who is white, also suggested to the council that his club was being targeted because it’s “majority black.”
The council did not see Cooper and Walker’s side of the argument and voted unanimously to rescind the business license.
Throughout that discussion, Abbott, who was elected president last week, struggled to keep speakers — and her fellow councilors — adherent to their allotted speaking times. Her efforts became much more difficult during discussion of funding for the Birmingham Urban League, which frequently became heated.
The ordinance in question would have executed an agreement with the Birmingham Urban League in which the city would pay the organization up to $87,999 in exchange for the Urban League facilitating “various economic development projects including economic revitalization, business growth, industrial development and job growth.” The Birmingham Urban League was established in 1967 to improve conditions for the city’s underprivileged population. The Urban League provides, among other things, job skills training, placement assistance, and youth development programs.
Councilor Steven Hoyt, a former board member of the Urban League, suggested that the relationship between the Urban League and the city had been “more political in the last seven years than it has been any other time” — the length of Mayor William Bell’s tenure — and called into question “the viability and integrity” of the Urban League. “This is what happens to great organizations who allow themselves to get caught up in local politics.”
Councilor Lashunda Scales also questioned the link between the Urban League and the mayor’s office, arguing that the council had been left in the dark. “I don’t care if you’re REV Birmingham (or the) Urban League — you can’t just stop at the mayor’s office and not make it around to this council,” she said.
“The only time we see you is when you’re trying to get money,” she said.
William Barnes, the president and CEO of the Birmingham Urban League, responded defensively, remarking that it was “hurtful and disheartening that some of these things are being said about civil rights organizations.”
He responded, rather pointedly to Scales and Hoyt, that he had tried to reach out to their offices. “I did, and you know I did,” he said.
Scales later said that was false.
District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn raised some questions about the Urban League’s budget and whether the proposed agreement was the result of a request for proposal document. Barnes said that it wasn’t, but instead predicated on a perennial relationship between the organization and the city.
O’Quinn proposed that the council delay the measure for two weeks to learn more, drawing a sharp response from District 6 Councilor Sheila Tyson, a proponent of funding for the Urban League, which she said had benefitted citizens of her district, regardless of politics.
“We need this funding,” she said to O’Quinn. “Your district, Crestwood, probably don’t need it, because y’all done got money over there. District 6 don’t have any.”
At this, Abbott reminded Tyson not to directly address her fellow councilors from the dais “because we don’t want to get into internal battles. We all want to remain friends.”
District 9 Councilor John Hilliard also spoke in favor of funding the Urban League. “I, for one, don’t think you get enough money!” he told Barnes, citing the organization’s “rich history.”
O’Quinn’s motion for a two-week delay was voted down by the council, having only gained support from Hoyt. A final vote on the funding resolution passed, with O’Quinn and Hoyt voting no and Scales abstaining.
The council also voted to approve advance travel expenses for Councilor William Parker to take three trips in November — $1,340 to attend a meeting with the National Trust for Historic Preservation Officials in Washington, D.C.; $934 to attend the Southeast Brownfields Conference in Atlanta; and $1,505 to attend a meeting with Department of Interior Officials in Washington, D.C.
Abbott, who has a record of consistently voting against travel expenses, told Parker that she would actually vote in favor of his travel expenses if he promised to bring back a written report from the Brownfields conference, to which Parker grinned and muttered that he would.