After weeks of debate, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve the proposed development of a Major League Baseball Youth Academy at the city’s George Ward Park, though it remains unclear whether the MLB Youth Foundation is still interested in pursuing the project in the wake of the controversy surrounding it.
Though the MLBYF apparently had nixed its plans for the academy after receiving pushback from residents of the surrounding neighborhood, councilors said they did not believe a “vocal minority” should scuttle the project, arguing that it would benefit youth from all of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods.
Despite the lengthy discussion on the proposal and on a proposed compromise that was soundly rejected, almost every councilor voted in favor of the academy, leaving the project’s fate in the hands of the MLBYF.
Setbacks and Misinformation
The MLBYF had proposed construction of a $10 million, 20-acre facility at George Ward Park, located in the city’s Glen Iris neighborhood. As part of the deal, the academy would provide free, year-round softball, baseball, academic and “life skills” training for Birmingham youth. The MLBYF would construct an additional baseball field, two softball fields, an academy building and parking facilities as part of the contract. In exchange, the academy would have exclusive control over the academy and first priority for use of the baseball complex.
Though many city officials, including Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, reacted enthusiastically to the proposal, many Glen Iris residents expressed opposition. At a March 4 neighborhood association meeting, many residents said they were concerned that the MLBYF would privatize the public park and take away facilities from the New South Softball League, an LGBT softball league that hosts its national tournament at the park. Tony Reagins, the MLB’s executive vice president of baseball and softball development, was present at that meeting and emailed Council President Pro Tem William Parker the next morning to say that the MLBYF would “reassess (its) position” on the project.
At March 5’s council meeting, Parker called this a significant “setback,” though he expressed some hope that discussions with the MLBYF could continue. Opponents of the project, including Councilor Valerie Abbott, argued that the project had been rushed and that residents had not been given enough information.
“The information was not communicated with the neighborhoods,” said Abbott, whose district includes George Ward Park. “That creates anger amongst people who utilize the park and feel like someone is taking it from the people who use it to give to another entity, which is basically what we are looking at doing.”
In response, Parker said he “took responsibility” for that lack of communication, and he began working to salvage the project. As chair of the council’s parks and recreation committee, he hosted “conversations with community stakeholders” to clear up what he described as “misinformation” residents had about the project.
“Give a Little to Get a Little”
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Parker had also unilaterally placed a separate item on the agenda “expressing support for infrastructure upgrades at George Ward Park in an amount not to exceed $1.2 million.” That money, he said, would go toward the construction of a new softball field at the park, though many of the councilors expressed incredulity at the plan.
Wardine Alexander, the councilor for District 7, argued that the money could be better spent elsewhere in the city. “When I look at the amount of money that upgrade would cost, at $1.2 million, I’m not that good at math, but … that equates to about 333 potholes that we could fix here in the city of Birmingham. We could spend that money on things that are important to our citizens.”
District 9 Councilor John Hilliard said he was “baffled” by the proposal and refused to look at Parker’s renderings of the proposed new field. “I am not going to entertain the $1.2 million under any circumstances,” he said. “I don’t want to see no maps. Take ‘em back … Why are we debating this when we have already made up our minds what to do?”
Speaking after the meeting, Parker said that Council President Valerie Abbott had asked him to research a potential new field. “She asked me to explore that option,” he said. “The council gave me a homework assignment to bring a lot of possibilities to the table, and that’s what I did.” The $1.2 million figure, he said, came from park board staffers’ research of construction costs for such a project.
At the meeting, Abbott thanked Parker for his “offer of compromise.”
“Everybody would have to give a little to get a little,” she said. “Obviously, the attempt has not been successful, but I appreciate the attempt. The idea was to have a compromise instead of a take-it-or-leave-it, my-way-or-the-highway approach.”
“What the Hell are We Doing Here?”
Instead, councilors voted to approve the project as-is. Hilliard, one of the academy’s most vocal supporters on the council, said that he was “disgusted that we are even having to go through this and battle over something that we all know is a great opportunity for our children.’
“I think it’s a setback for Birmingham to even be at this discussion right now,” he said. “When I realize there was just a few people actually scaring a national organization away from investing here, it’s just a tragedy.”
Other councilors expressed their incredulity that the controversy was happening at all. “What the hell are we doing here?” asked District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt at one point.
Abbott maintained that her opposition to the project reflected her constituents’ views. “I do not believe that there is one member on this council who would vote in defiance of their constituents’ wishes,” she said. “I’ve had two constituents reach out to me in favor of this and the rest have been against it. I think there is not one person who is opposed to having this in Birmingham. The location is the only issue … There are other places where the youth academy could go if anyone would put some effort into it.”
Eight councilors — all but Abbott — voted in favor of the academy coming to George Ward Park. Parker subsequently withdrew the proposal for the $1.2 million expansion.
Tony Reagins, the MLB representative, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.