Birmingham City Council

Birmingham Mayor Woodfin Throws Support Behind New Stadium and BJCC Renovations

Legacy Arena at the BJCC (Source: BJCC/Morley Enterprises)

Jan. 31, 2018 — Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin announced his support for an expansion and upgrade to the BJCC arena Wednesday, saying revenue generated by the renovated stadium would go toward his administration’s priority of neighborhood revitalization.

The upgrades would include renovations to the Legacy Arena and outside piazza, as well as the construction of a $174 million new open-air stadium, though design specifics remain undetermined.

Speaking during a special called committee of the whole meeting, Woodfin told City Council members — all of whom were present except for District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales — that it was time for the city to “actually move beyond just talking” about the project, which has been planned in some form since the 1960s.

Woodfin said his support for the project stemmed from his administration’s focus on neighborhood revitalization.

“Truthfully, digging into it, looking at our finances, looking at our resources … we have no additional funding to fund our priorities,” he said. New revenue, he said, would need to be generated in the areas of tourism, entertainment and sports.

Revenue generated for the city by the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex expansion, Woodfin said, would go toward a fund specifically targeting neighborhood revitalization efforts.

“I think it’s time for the city of Birmingham, when we talk about advancing the neighborhoods, to have a dedicated source of funding where 100 percent of those funds can go,” he said.

The plan is set to go before the council for a vote at Tuesday’s meeting.

Woodfin, along with BJCC CEO and Executive Director Tad Snider, emphasized that the expansion and renovation would make Birmingham’s tourist industry more competitive with other cities in the Southeast.

Snider said that, when he joined the BJCC authority 25 years ago, “We competed head-to-head with Nashville.” Now, he said, Birmingham is in a smaller market shared by cities such as Memphis and Chattanooga.

Part of that decline, Woodfin added, “is because we have not made the full commitment and investment in our existing infrastructure.” The upgrade and expansion “is not about something new, it’s about investment in something that we already have.”

Mayor Randall Woodfin and the City Council committee of the whole discuss a new stadium and BJCC improvements. (Source: Sam Prickett)

Funding Through Public-Private Partnerships

Woodfin and the council joked about — without naming — former Mayor Larry Langford and his plans for a domed stadium at the BJCC. That project went as far as a groundbreaking ceremony in July 2009, though actual construction never occurred due to a lack of funding. Under Langford’s proposal, which the council had approved, the city would have contributed $8 million annually to the stadium’s construction.

Under Woodfin’s plan for the new open-air stadium, on the other hand, the city would contribute $3 million annually for 30 years. In a press release, Woodfin said that $3 million annual investment would generate an annual return of $9.9 million per year through occupational, sales, property and lodging taxes associated with the BJCC. During the meeting, Snider explained that the project could yield $9.9 million in revenue annually “should the area around the stadium be developed by private developers.”

The rest of the expansion’s funding, he said, would be a public-private partnership with several organizations and governments.

The BJCC authority, for instance, would pay $10.7 million in annual debt service for the project, while UAB and other corporate community members would contribute $4 million annually over the course of 10 years. The Jefferson County government, meanwhile, would put $1 million toward the project each year for 30 years.

A final source of funding would come from the enactment of a rental car tax, which would contribute $3.5 million in annual revenue for 30 years. Whether that money will be available, however, depends on the Alabama state Legislature. Last week, the City Council voted to reallocate $100,000 earmarked for Legion Field improvements to instead fund lobbying efforts to raise that tax.

“I thought, think, and believe that is a fair balance as regards to our support of this,” said Woodfin, who assured councilors that he had negotiated the city’s share of funding down from a “way higher” amount.

Speaking after the meeting, Council President Valerie Abbott said she would have liked Jefferson County to have split funding evenly with the city — $2 million each for 30 years — but she said the inclusion of private contributions as well as taxpayer money was “a really big deal for me, personally.”

Abbott, who has been on the council since 2001, said this was the first proposal for a BJCC expansion she had seen that she felt had a “99.9 percent chance” of actually coming to fruition.

Legion Field Not off the Table

Most discussions of expanding the BJCC, including the one regarding the car rental tax last week, were cautious about the impact a new stadium would have on Legion Field. Though money already has been taken away from improvements to that stadium to lobby for the BJCC updates, Woodfin said he doesn’t see the relationship between the two stadiums as an “or” situation.

He compared the situation to the construction of Regions Field, a minor-league baseball park that opened in 2013, and its relationship with Rickwood Field, a historical baseball park that opened in Birmingham 103 years before that. Both parks have remained open, though Rickwood serves more as a historical site than an active baseball stadium.

“We can make a full investment (in the BJCC expansion) and still support what exists at Legion Field,” Woodfin said, suggesting that Legion Field would benefit from the improvements the new neighborhood revitalization fund would bring.

“I don’t want us to talk about what we’re going to do with Legion Field without talking about how we’re going to invest in College Hills and Smithfield and Graymont,” he said, referring to the neighborhoods that surround the stadium. “And that’s going to take money we don’t have … . Legion Field’s not going anywhere, but when we talk about Legion Field, let’s talk about it as part of the Smithfield Community.”