The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to allocate an additional $290,274.39 toward construction on the city’s Negro Southern League Museum. But many councilors, including those who voted in favor of the funding, weren’t happy about it.
“There are so many things that I vote on that I have to hold my nose while voting,” said council President Valerie Abbott. “Sometimes you have to vote for things that you don’t really want to vote for, but we need to complete this project.”
The Negro Southern League Museum, which first opened in 2015, is part of a downtown development that includes the adjacent Regions Field. But much of that building has remained unfinished since then, representatives from the city’s planning, engineering and permits (PEP) department told the council. With a new restaurant slated to move into the building, extra funding to complete construction was needed.
“At the time this building was constructed, it was constructed in such a way that the museum could function,” PEP Deputy Director Denise Bell told the council. “There were things that were left undone, unfinished or done in such a way that now we have to correct it, now that someone is moving into the back of the building.”
The additional funding will go toward completing the building’s elevator and making the its air conditioning unit and data center accessible. The money will be largely taken from the budget for the police department’s firing range, along with line items for the car/truck wash facilities, fuel pump replacements and the Birmingham Civil Right Institute’s remediation fund.
The city already had spent roughly $2.5 million on the construction of the museum. Last year, the council voted to give $1.5 million in incentives to Michael’s Steak and Seafood, a restaurant that will occupy part of the building’s first floor and the entire second floor.
District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams was most opposed to the additional funding, calling it “a gross waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Williams said he was concerned that the museum had been granted certificates of occupancy by the city when there were so many glaring construction issues to be addressed with the building. That the city had not received as-built drawings – images submitted by a contractor at the end of the job as a record of work completed – was another cause of concern, he said.
“It sounds like there was a failure at every point of this,” he said.
His concerns were shared by District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt. “To sign off and do the closeout on the museum and not have those documents? I tell you, I have a real problem with that,” Hoyt said. “How can you issue a permit if you don’t have the closeout documents? … Who would sign off and not have received that? There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered.”
PEP Director Edwin Revell, who was a deputy director for the department in 2015, said he believed the temporary certificates of occupancy had been issued for the past four years “because the museum portion was completed, so there was the ability to occupy the building, at least to that extent, with the understanding that the rest would have to be occupied at a later date, when it’s completed.” The city only became aware of the existing issues, he said, when construction on the restaurant began.
Williams and Hoyt both seemed unsatisfied with those answers and, along with Abbott and District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods, called for an official investigation into what happened.
“I would ask the mayor to do a full investigation in a 30-day window, (so we can understand) basically what happened,” Woods said. “Something happened in this project, and it doesn’t look right … . If we can’t get (that information) in 30 days, the council might look at using its investigative powers to look into this, because just what I’ve heard and seen about this, something doesn’t look right. … There is potential that something inappropriate took place.”
Mayor Randall Woodfin said he shared the council’s frustrations but argued that the council should approve the funding anyway so that the owners of Michael’s, who plan to open the restaurant in the spring, would not be damaged.
“If we don’t complete this, we can’t complete the restaurant,” he said. “If there is a delay, this black-owned establishment that’s supposed to be in the museum will not be able to proceed.
It was an argument echoed by both Woods, who said he didn’t “see a scenario in which we don’t complete this project,” and District 9 Councilor John Hilliard.
“We are at a point where we have no choice but to complete the work on that building,” Hilliard said. “It will be derelict for us to not complete that building when we’ve already allocated over $1 million, and the business has really expected for it to be done by the opening date … . I just couldn’t see treating anybody in that manner, when it’s our (the city’s) building.”
The council voted to approve the funding, with Williams as the only dissenting vote.
Speaking later Tuesday afternoon, Woodfin said that the council made “the right decision.”
“This small business owner shouldn’t be held to an unfair standard based on some things that have happened in the past,” he said. “We’re excited to be moving forward.”
Woodfin said there was not yet a timeline for when construction at the museum building would be completed.