March 27, 2018 — After more than four hours of debate, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve funding for expansions and renovations to the BJCC, including the construction of an open-air stadium.
Mayor Randall Woodfin pushed for the council to approve the project, which will require the city to contribute $3 million a year for 30 years. But the project received major pushback from critics — most vocally District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales — who questioned the city’s return on the investment as well as the necessity of a new stadium.
On Feb. 6, the council voted to approve a statement of intent to support the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex expansion, although that resolution did not allocate money or include specific contractual details. Councilors entered Tuesday’s meeting with those details in hand — though some, such as District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, said they had not had enough time with the documents to make an informed decision.
O’Quinn, along with Scales and District 6 Councilor Sheila Tyson, voted against funding the stadium. Councilors Hunter Williams, William Parker and Jay Roberson, who remained largely silent during the debate, joined Council President Valerie Abbott, District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt and District 9 Councilor John Hilliard in voting yes.
O’Quinn said that councilors had received the newest version of the agreement just a few hours before Tuesday’s meeting started.
“I’ve got a problem with being asked to make a decision on something that’s been put right in front of me (hours before),” he said. “This mayor has been very responsive. He’s been cooperative. … But again, I make decisions based on information, and the fact is, I haven’t been able to get to a point where I am comfortable that the citizens of Birmingham have a clear benefit from our participation in this project. I want to know that there will be a significant return on investment.”
But other councilors felt differently. Though Hoyt agreed that the council had been given a short period of time to look over the final iteration of the contract, he said he supported the agreement because “due diligence has been applied.” Hoyt said that while the contract was not “a perfect document,” he felt many of his concerns had been addressed.
“The mayor has been nothing short of being amenable when it comes to tenets in these documents that guard the city’s dollars and also preserve the character of the city,” he said.
Under the contract, the city would fund $90 million of the proposed $300 million project over 30 years, with payments of $3 million per year. The BJCC Authority will pay $10.7 million in annual debt service, UAB and other private entities will pay $4 million per year for 10 years, and the Jefferson County government will pay $1 million a year for 30 years. A 3 percent tax on auto rentals in Jefferson County, which was approved last week by the Alabama Legislature, will generate roughly $3 million per year, all of which will go toward the project.
The stadium itself will be open-air, not the dome previously proposed, and will feature 45,000 permanent seats and 40,000 square feet of meeting space. Primarily, the stadium will host football games for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When BJCC CEO and Executive Director Tad Snider presented the project to the City Council in January, he said the stadium would host between 20 and 23 events annually.
One of the council’s stipulations for the agreement was the inclusion of minority businesses in the project’s design and construction. The contract says that the BJCC Authority will use its “best efforts” to “strive for 30 percent participation by minority and historically underutilized businesses in all expansion and capital projects.” The contract requires the authority to give the council a monthly status update, including compliance with the minority business requirement, as well as the list of third-party businesses contracted for the project.
The agreement also was accompanied by a separate resolution stating that the city would dedicate all its revenue growth resulting from the BJCC expansion to a “neighborhood revitalization fund.” The resolution passed unanimously.
The fund would be spent at the discretion of the mayor and council for projects “which may include increased public safety, resurfacing streets and sidewalks, removing dilapidated houses, housing development, and other priorities deemed important by the mayor and city council,” the resolution states.
That revenue, according to a study commissioned by the BJCC, would be approximately $500,000 per year. Revenue could be as high as $9.9 million a year if other properties in the area are developed, according to the study.
“The People Don’t Want It”
Before the council discussed the plan, members of the public had a chance to speak. A long list of speakers addressed the council, with the majority expressing disapproval — and, in some cases, rage — at the proposal. Many of them viewed it as coming at the expense of other needed city expenditures.
“It’s wrong for the city,” said Robert Walker,” who spoke first, setting the tone for much of what followed. “The people don’t want it, and if the people don’t want it, we shouldn’t have to go through all this … . The neighborhoods have been waiting for a long, long time for some attention, and y’all should give it to them.”
Susan Palmer, president of the Central Park Neighborhood Association, said she had prepared a petition urging Woodfin and the council not to support the stadium, arguing that its expenditures would come at the expense of public safety measures.
“Why are we voting $90 million (over 30 years) to give to an entertainment stadium when we are losing lives every day?” she asked.
Keith Williams, who regularly attends council meetings, said he had “literally cried” at the “incomplete information, inaccurate information, arrogance, (and) cockiness” demonstrated by Woodfin and the council during meetings about the stadium. “Mayor Woodfin, you said you would put people first,” he said. “Well, I’m here to tell you today, as far as I’m considered, your slogan, ‘Putting people first,’ is dead,” he said.
A racial element also was present during some members of the comments. One speaker was ejected from the meeting after referring to the mayor as a “sellout” and several racial epithets. That speaker was black, as is Woodfin.
Ervin Philemon Hill II, who ran unsuccessfully against Woodfin last year, accused Woodfin of taking his “marching orders” from state Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, who has supported the stadium in the Legislature. “He’s going to do what massa says,” said Hill, who also is black.
Two of Waggoner’s fellow state legislators spoke at the meeting, though they were opposed to the project.
Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, argued that the council should delay the ordinance, saying that the Druid Hills neighborhood (in which the new stadium would be built) “would like to sit down and review everything that’s going on before we make a commitment.”
Representatives from the Druid Hills neighborhood association echoed this opinion, saying they had hoped for a town hall meeting before the council vote.
Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, argued that the city would not have enough input in the stadium’s future once it had agreed to contribute the money.
“I think it’s a disgrace to use that kind of money and not have any say-so in it,” he said. “Once you (agree to) this, you have no bargaining tool at all.” Rogers said that he was trying to get the city “a better deal,” and pled for the council to delay approval of the contract.
Scales said the wording of the contract did not favor Birmingham enough, citing that it would give Birmingham two seats on the stadium’s nine-member board. She also thought the language stating the project would “strive” to include minority contractors during construction wasn’t strong enough.
The few members of the public who spoke in favor of the stadium during the meeting were connected to UAB’s football program.
Jim Hilyer, UAB’s first head football coach, argued that the program would be able to “bring people in, to fill stadiums, to present UAB football in a positive light.”
Building the Future
Proponents on the council, meanwhile, reiterated arguments that the new stadium would allow Birmingham to become a competitive entertainment hub in the Southeast.
“I am so excited we are about to make a move to take this city into the future,” said Hilliard. “We get a chance now to change our 99 neighborhoods and make a difference… It’s awesome to know that Birmingham is about to step into the future.”
Abbott placed the new stadium in the context of previous projects that were controversial when first proposed, including Railroad Park, Regions Field and the Summit. She said those projects all had been good for the city. “Three million dollars (per year) out of a $428 million (annual budget) is actually fairly normal for incentives that we do to build things,” Abbott said.
Scales used the same reference points to paint the opposite picture. “We’ve got Regions Field, (which cost) $64 million, and we said that was going to help the city of Birmingham,” she said. “Lie. We also said the (Uptown) entertainment district we did for $55 million in my first term (would help). Lie.” This time, she said, the project would happen “at the expense of the 99 neighborhoods.”
She argued that the continued emphasis on development downtown was costing Birmingham’s poor, black neighborhoods, which were not getting the same opportunities.
“The frustration that you hear today is of a 2018 that’s still a tale of two cities,” she said, describing Birmingham as a city of “haves and have nots.”
Woodfin, however, remained steadfast in his defense of the project, arguing that the revenue it would generate would be essential to — not exclusive from — his promises of neighborhood revitalization.
“This is the right thing to do because it has a full benefit for our entire city,” he said. “I am comfortable with a down payment of less than 1 percent of our $428 million-per-year (budget). It’s going to generate … $9 (million) to $10 million to put in our neighborhood revitalization fund. I told people, I’m going to get rid of these dilapidated structures. I told these folks I’m going to pave streets, make sidewalks and curbs walkable, but I need money to do that.”
He said opponents had created the appearance of a false choice, between the stadium and the neighborhoods. “You all have put me in this position because you know I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “We can support neighborhood revitalization and economic development at the same time. It’s not a choice.”
Construction on the project is anticipated to start by the beginning of next year.