A new restaurant is officially headed to the Negro Southern League Museum.
The Birmingham City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a funding agreement for the city’s PACE Board to build out and lease the space in the museum to Michael’s Steak and Seafood — but not before taking time to address critics of the plan.
Council President Valerie Abbott started discussion by remarking that her office had received “a lot of email” regarding the deal. The main question, she said, was why Michael’s had been offered the deal — which includes two free years of rent — when other restaurants had not received offers from the city.
Kelvin Datcher, the director of intergovernmental affairs for the mayor’s office, said Mayor Randall Woodfin had inherited a “tentative agreement” with Michael’s from his predecessor, William Bell. “We wanted to make sure we kept our word,” he said.
Datcher also added that the city’s commitment to build out the restaurant is standard for city-owned buildings. He added that building a restaurant was necessary for the museum to generate revenue: “It’s a beautiful facility, but without a caterer, it does not attract people to visit.”
Some members of the council, including Steven Hoyt, suggested that the complaints directed toward Michael’s getting the deal were racially based. Co-owners Amelia Williams and Bernadine Birdsong are both black women.
“Nobody was raising hell when we gave $5 million to the zoo,” he said. “To date, this is probably the first African-American primarily owned restaurant that we’ve ever given incentives to … . This is minute compared to what we’ve done for other majority-owned restaurants.”
John Hilliard concurred: “It’s mind-boggling that in 2018 we’re still talking about something that should be an afterthought,” he said.
Councilor Lashunda Scales also brought up the council’s controversial decision to reactivate the defunct PACE Board in late May, despite concerns about its lack of accountability. The council’s stated reason for doing so had been for the PACE Board to oversee and approve the restaurant; by law, it’s the only body with that power.
“When PACE Board members were being appointed, I remember that being a bone of contention,” Scales said. “If this was an issue then, then why did you appoint people to the PACE Board? Because that was the premise.”
While the councilors present on the dais were addressing their comments to those who had complained about the deal online and via email, they were all in agreement; the seven members present voted unanimously to approve the measure.