Several major changes are headed to Birmingham in 2019, although some will be more apparent than others. They range from the bureaucratic – such as new members on the Birmingham City Council, ongoing personnel shake-ups at the Birmingham Public Library and calls for a comprehensive public safety plan – to the physical – including a major interstate closure and construction of a new open-air stadium at the BJCC.
Here’s what the year ahead looks like for the Magic City:
Interstate Construction to Test Birmingham Infrastructure
A major stretch of Interstate 20/59 that runs through downtown Birmingham will close for construction this year and stay that way for 14 months. The stretch of highway that runs between U.S. 31 and I-65 will close in mid-to-late January, with traffic redirected through Finley Boulevard and Third Avenue South.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said that shifted traffic will “cause a temporary strain on our city’s infrastructure grid,” but has encouraged the typically reticent Alabama Department of Transportation to emphasize communication with Birmingham residents.
“We’re trying to work with the state and ALDOT to make sure there’s notice, there’s communication, and that there’s ease and access,” Woodfin told reporters in November. “This is a process. We don’t know everything yet because we’re still waiting on them to share information on their timeline. When they share it (with) us, my conversation with them is, ‘You need to overshare it with the residents of Birmingham. We’ll join in on that conversation and make sure our residents know.’”
Two New City Councilors Start Work, But Will the Public Get a Say?
Two new Birmingham city councilors were sworn-in Jan. 2. Clinton Woods and Crystal Smitherman were appointed to the council’s empty District 1 and 6 seats in December, beating out 34 other applicants.
Their appointments marked the end of an unprecedented year for the council, during which three councilors resigned less than a year into a four-year term. Former District 1 and 6 councilors Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson left the council in November to join the Jefferson County Commission, while Jay Roberson resigned from his District 7 seat in September, citing his wife’s new job with Alabaster City Schools. The council appointed former Birmingham school board President Wardine Alexander to fill that vacancy.
Many on the council have called for a special election to allow citizens to choose their representatives. The Mayor-Council Act stipulates that the seats must be included on the next scheduled citywide election, which is currently slated to happen in 2021. Council President Valerie Abbott has speculated that Mayor Randall Woodfin will call an election in spring 2019 “for some taxes that have to be renewed,” though Woodfin’s office would not confirm those plans.
Alexander, Woods and Smitherman have all stated that they would run if an election were held.
Increasing Focus on Sports Tied to Neighborhood Revitalization
Birmingham’s sports scene will see a lot of growth in 2019. In addition to the ongoing construction of an open-air stadium at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, the city will get a professional soccer team, Birmingham Legion F.C., which will start its inaugural season March 9. It’s also getting a professional football league team, Birmingham Iron, as part of the newly formed Alliance of American Football.
The Magic City Classic will continue to be held at Legion Field, despite some concerns that it would be moved; earlier this year, the city renewed its contract for the game through 2022.
Mayor Randall Woodfin has acknowledged the controversy that some of these new developments – particularly the BJCC expansion – have generated, with some critics saying the projects are contradictory to Woodfin’s promises to focus on neighborhood revitalization.
But Woodfin said they’re an essential part of improving neighborhoods.
“I have to acknowledge how the city derives its funding,” he said in November. “When you see the city of Birmingham making those investments, we make those investments because we know there will be an increase in revenue we can receive off those additional things and sustain — sales tax, occupational, business license … . For every additional dollar that tax base, those venues or that entertainment generates, we can put back into the neighborhood revitalization fund to build our city’s infrastructure as well as stabilize our communities.”
A New Public Safety Plan
Birmingham had a violent year in 2018, logging 109 homicides as of Dec. 27. While that number is not as high as 2017’s 117 homicides, the most since 1995, it has drawn concern from city leaders about the need for a new, comprehensive approach to violent crime.
The Birmingham Police Department came under new leadership in 2018 with the hiring of Chief Patrick D. Smith, a former commander with the Los Angeles Police Department who has increased hiring numbers and reworked the department’s shift schedule.
But Smith has yet to present the public with a full crime-fighting strategy for the department, despite repeated promises from Woodfin’s office. His chief of staff, Cedric D. Sparks, initially told the City Council a plan would be presented in November; in November, Woodfin told reporters the plan would be presented to the public by Dec. 31. “We’re committing to that,” he said.
That public safety plan has not yet been presented, though Woodfin has indicated it will have three significant prongs: prevention, enforcement and re-entry — a holistic approach tied into education, the city’s Department of Youth Services and economic development.
“Although it’s led by chief Smith and the police, it’s not isolated to the police department alone,” Woodfin said. “All of these things combine.”
More Personnel Changes at the Birmingham Public Library
It was a tumultuous year for the Birmingham Public Library, which has been embroiled in controversy over Executive Director Floyd Council. Council has been heavily criticized by many employees for creating a “hostile,” “toxic” work environment, with some of them petitioning the library’s board of director’s to remove him from the position. The board instead adopted a “corrective” plan for Council, though board President James A. Sullivan has refused to divulge the details of that plan.
In 2019, Council will oversee the hiring of several important positions at the BPL, including the security director, accountant and community engagement manager. The library board will also be looking to hire Council’s second-in-command after the retirement of Deputy Director Sandra Lee in December.
But the library board itself also is looking at a personnel shake-up thanks to two vacancies on the nine-member board. One was created by the departure of Wardine Alexander, who left the board to join the Birmingham City Council in November. The other was left by Gwendolyn R. Amamoo, whose term expired Dec. 31.
Both positions will be filled by the Birmingham City Council, members of which are “very aware” of the ongoing controversy, said Council President Valerie Abbott. Abbott describes the current board as being “reticent to admit that they made a mistake” by hiring Council. “It’s very sad, and it’s very unfortunate, but we’ve seen it happen before, where people’s resumes and credentials made them sound wonderful and then things didn’t turn out so well,” she said.
According to Abbott, the process for appointing the new board members will be more stringent than it has been in the past.
“We really need to be very careful about the qualifications of people we appoint and (do) background checks to make sure we’re not appointing people who have issues,” she said. And then we need to make sure that they’re trained and understand specifically what a board member does and does not do.”
There might be an even bigger change coming to the board; it might get smaller. A recently passed law caps statewide library boards at five members, though BPL’s nine-member board has been “grandfathered in,” Abbott said.
“We’re kind of auditing that out, to see if it makes sense to have so many board members for the Birmingham Public Library, or if it makes sense for us to come into compliance with state law,” she said. “We’re talking with the (city’s) law department to make sure that, whatever we do, we do it right and that we don’t create other problems.”