“It’s truly a sad day for Birmingham,” Birmingham City Councilor William Parker said Tuesday after revealing that Major League Baseball Youth Foundation was “reassessing” its plans to build a youth academy at the city’s George Ward Park.
The announcement preceded a long series of monologues from councilors, Mayor Randall Woodfin and members of the public, all of whom had differing opinions on what had scuttled the deal. Some councilors attributed the MLBYF’s decision to a racially charged campaign by residents who opposed the academy. But others, including Council President Valerie Abbott and several members of the public who spoke at the meeting, pinned the plan’s apparent failure on a lack of communication between the council and neighborhood associations.
Eventually, the council opted to set a public meeting with residents to clarify details about the project — which councilors said they hoped would save the deal with the MLBYF.
The Major League Baseball Youth Foundation had planned to construct a $10 million youth academy in the 120-acre George Ward Park, located in the city’s Glen Iris neighborhood. The academy, which would take up about 20 acres, would serve as a free, year-round training center — for baseball, softball, and “life skills,” according to the MLBYF’s proposed contract with the city — for the city’s youth. There are 11 such academies throughout the country; it would be the first for Alabama.
George Ward Park currently features six softball diamonds, eight tennis courts, a dog park and a disc golf course. The proposed contract provided for the construction of two additional baseball fields, one softball field, one youth baseball field, an academy building and parking facilities. Though George Ward Park is a public facility, the MLBYF would have exclusive control over the academy. The MLBYF also would have first priority for scheduling use of the baseball complex.
But that proposal drew controversy from regular users of the park. The New South Softball League, an LGBT softball league located in Birmingham, said it would move its national tournament from George Ward Park to Tuscaloosa if the MLBYF’s facility was constructed, saying that the changes would make the park incompatible with its tournament plans. Others argued against the privatization of a public park, or expressed fear over potential removal of the park’s disc golf space (which the MLBYF said would not be affected).
At a Glen Iris neighborhood meeting Monday night, residents expressed disapproval toward the project. Tony Reagins, the MLB’s executive vice president of baseball and softball development, was in attendance. The next morning, 10 minutes before the city council’s regularly scheduled meeting, he emailed Parker to say he was stepping back from the planned development.
“William, Major League Baseball would like to thank the City of Birmingham and the Parks and Recreation Board for their hard work during this process,” Reagins wrote in his email, which Parker read aloud at the council meeting. “At this time, we are going to reassess our position relative to an MLB Youth Academy at George Ward Park and will remain open to other site options in the city.”
A visibly upset Parker told reporters that he viewed the email as a significant “setback” but that he hoped conversations with MLB would continue. “We’ve been knocked down today, but we work through adversity, we pick ourselves up, and we move forward,” he said.
But other councilors framed the setback in more apocalyptic terms. “When I was driving this morning to City Hall, I saw this wonderful sign that said, ‘We are Birmingham,’” District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt said. “We need to take it down, because (today) we can’t empower our young people in a way that helps prepare them to become stronger, better, smarter… This takes us back 50 years.”
He was referring to the Civil Rights movement — and the question of race lingered over much of the council’s remarks. Hoyt suggested that residents opposed the project because they did not want black youth coming to their neighborhoods to use the facility. “(The MLBYF’s) intention was to empower those who have not had the exposure, and they were black and brown children, black and Latina children, and one community says, ‘No, you don’t bring it over here. We don’t want it.’
“I would be ashamed if I represented that area,” he added. “Dr. King did not die for us to be having this conversation in 2019… Subliminal and systemic racism still exists in this city.”
District 9 Councilor John Hilliard suggested the retaliatory measure of giving the deed for the park to Friends of George Ward Park, making them responsible for its upkeep instead of the city. “What we tried to do was to work with an organization that wanted to bring major attention to young people, but maybe you have a better idea, and I’m not opposed to it,” he said, addressing neighborhood residents sitting in the back of the council chambers.
Mayor Randall Woodfin, also visibly frustrated, said his office would offer “no pushback” to that idea. “I received a lot of emails and calls and texts and I think I saw the word ‘my,’ ‘our’ more than a hundred times. ‘My park.’ ‘Our park,’” Woodfin said. “I think I said this to at least one person privately, ‘(If) that language is going to continue to be used toward me, then I’m going to ask the park board, hell, just deed it over to George Ward Park, then the city doesn’t have to spend any tax dollars on the park, they can do whatever they want.’”
But Council President Valerie Abbott, whose district includes George Ward Park, said that her opposition — and that of residents — came from the worry that the academy would “displace” the park’s current users, not racism.
“George Ward is a dedicated city park and it is proposed to be taken for exclusive use by a single organization,” she said. “But the main complaint of people in the community is the fact that this was done in secrecy. The information was not communicated with the neighborhoods… That creates anger amongst people who utilize the park and feel like someone is taking it from the people who use it to give it to another entity, which is basically what we are looking at doing… The neighborhood has been maligned at this meeting. You would think that everyone was the devil themselves.”
Parker invited residents of the neighborhood to express their concerns, and they largely said the same as Abbott — they felt that they had not been given adequate information, and in some cases had only misinformation about the project.
As neighborhood residents spoke, councilors adopted a more conciliatory tone, with Parker eventually calling for a meeting to be set to publicly discuss the issue with residents. The specific date and location for that forum was not announced at Tuesday’s meeting, but councilors left with some hope that the project would go forward.
“We ask you to re-evaluate,” Hilliard said, saying he hoped MLBYF representatives were listening. “Please, contact us again.”
With that optimism toward salvaging the project, the council voted to delay any vote on the MLBYF’s proposal until March 19.
This story has been changed to reflect Woodfin’s full quote in response to the complaints: Mayor Randall Woodfin, also visibly frustrated, said his office would offer “no pushback” to that idea. “I received a lot of emails and calls and texts and I think I saw the word ‘my,’ ‘our’ more than a hundred times. ‘My park.’ ‘Our park,’” Woodfin said. “I think I said this to at least one person privately, ‘(If) that language is going to continue to be used toward me, then I’m going to ask the park board, hell, just deed it over to George Ward Park, then the city doesn’t have to spend any tax dollars on the park, they can do whatever they want.’”