|The Birmingham City Council (7 of 9 members) saw the male members wear 'hoodies' in honor of Trayvon Martin... before they made him an honorary citizen of the 74 percent black city|
Hopping aboard a bike, former Bogota, Colombia, Mayor Enrique Penalosa took a six-mile ride through the good, the bad and the ugly of Birmingham in advance of today's Sustainable Smart Cities Conference.
After biking through depopulated portions of Titusville and Elyton, marred with abandoned and burned-out houses and grim housing developments, Penalosa was aghast.
"What I saw today was one of the most depressed areas I have ever seen," he said.
He suggested that residents in the sparsely populated areas be bought out to make way for a "crazy" project -- something on a massive scale, a veritable new city of five- to 10-story buildings that could accommodate 20,000 new residents, packed with parks and streets reserved for walkers, bikers and buses.
"Something has to be done that is a shock. There are great opportunities to be radical," he said.
“Councilman Steven Hoyt questioned why a majority black city should continue to give money to the event run at the Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds.
“I’ve seen nobody, nobody who looks like me make any decisions with Barber sports. None. Zero,” Hoyt said.”
Construction of a new $60 million downtown baseball park is projected to create 500 jobs with a payroll of more than $18 million.
The construction and design team for the new baseball park next to the Birmingham Railroad Park is in place and includes more than 61 percent minority firms, and most companies are based in Birmingham. In all more than 50 companies, suppliers and contractors are expected to be part of the construction, design and development of the project, officials said.
"The baseball development is about more than just a new recreational facility," Birmingham Mayor William Bell said Friday. "It is about jobs and economic development and growth for our city. The push to use local and minority business owners will infuse capital into our local economy and put individuals to work on a project here at home that we all will benefit from."
How about the city council attacking a nonprofit group for not having enough ‘black faces’ on its staff? [Operating budget set for members' vote, Birmingham News, 6-23-2008]
Council members again discussed their list of commitments to nonprofit groups including Vulcan Park. Councilman Steven Hoyt, a frequent critic of the park's management, said he still had problems with the operation and racial diversity of the staff.
''Sometimes we just need to get folks' attention, and the only way to do that is adjusting our giving until they get it right,'' Hoyt said.
While the council did not cut Vulcan's funding, park officials will be invited to meet again with the council to answer Hoyt's issues.
''Still, it is a city park,'' said Councilwoman Valerie Abbott, who reminded the council that private donors raised $17 million to restore the attraction. ''I don't think we can pull the rug from under our own city park.''
The Birmingham City Council should have the final word on the selection of a firm to design the downtown dome, or the council won't pay for the project, five council members say.
"Maybe they need to do it by themselves," said Councilman Steven Hoyt. "Birmingham is the one putting the most money in, therefore it needs to be a consensus of the council."
Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex board members on Dec. 17 unanimously chose Kansas City, Mo.-based HOK Inc. to design the $500 million domed stadium.
Council members Hoyt, Carol Duncan, Joel Montgomery, Roderick Royal and Maxine Parker say they are outraged that an out-of-state architectural firm was awarded a $20 million contract by the BJCC board and no local or minority companies were selected to help with the work.
The BJCC should come before them before spending money that comes from city coffers, they said.
"They are not going to get my vote if they don't include minority architects in this project," said Hoyt, chairman of the council's economic development committee. Hoyt said he would discuss the issue at his committee meeting Jan. 8.
A Birmingham state representative proposes legislation to create a group dedicated exclusively to recruiting and expanding business within the city limits.
While there are existing business groups -- including the Birmingham Business Alliance -- state Rep. John Rogers said Birmingham's economy suffers in part because it lacks its own chamber of commerce.
"We've got businesses in this town who can't make it, and if we can create a business council that can help them, they can make it," Rogers said. "That helps the whole city."Several suburban cities, including Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Hoover, Homewood and Bessemer all have smaller chambers of commerce in addition to their participation in the larger BBA.
The bill, which is currently being advertised, would create the new organization, allocate funding and set up the board. While Rogers said his group would not compete with existing groups such as the BBA, he said the city needs an advocate for its own specific interests. Rogers said this new group would be "for Birmingham, by Birmingham."
"People who really operate those councils don't even live in Birmingham. They will be concerned about Birmingham, but they live in Homewood, Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook and everywhere else," he said. "Everybody develops every other area, and Birmingham seems to be lacking."
Birmingham City Councilman Steven Hoyt said Rogers' idea has merit.Hoyt has been a critic of BBA, saying the organization lacks diversity and focus concerning Birmingham, specifically smaller, minority-owned businesses.
"Our best effort is to grow Birmingham on all sides, and there doesn't seem to be any focus in growing North Birmingham, Ensley, Woodlawn or any of those areas," he said. "Our focus should be on Birmingham proper, since Birmingham is one of biggest contributors to those entities."
The seven candidates to be Birmingham's next mayor who participated in tonight's forum at the Five Points West Library drew the questions they were asked from a hat.
But they had a pretty good chance of drawing a question dealing with the city's utilization of minority-owned companies.
Moderator William Muhammad, co-chair of the Committee to Develop Birmingham, which hosted the forum, said most questions focused on that topic because the organization is striving to ensure that more of those businesses -- which they refer to as under-utilized businesses -- are given city contracts.
"Our main goal is to reduce the level of poverty in the city," Muhammad said after the forum. "If we could move the focus on equal opportunity for black businesses, those businesses tend to hire blacks, who live within the city, and we can reduce that poverty."
The candidates -- Steven Hoyt, William Bell, Scott Douglas, Jason Sumners, Jody Trautwein, Harry "Traveling Shoes" Turner and T.C. Cannon -- appeared to agree there is a need to increase the number of contracts going to minority-owned businesses, though they differed on the best way to do that.
Bell pointed to a measure implemented during the time apartheid was in effect in South Africa. At the time, Birmingham passed an ordinance prohibiting the city from doing business with companies doing business with South Africa.
That ordinance, he said, also called for companies doing business with the city to employ "a good cross-section" of the community. That measure has never been enforced, Bell said, and if elected that is something he will change.
Could one of the most powerful Birmingham city councilors be taking Mayor Bell to court?
Council President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt said today he's willing to sue Bell if that's what it takes to get a list of subcontractors who did tornado cleanup work for the city in the wake of the April 27 tornado.
Hoyt says he suspects minority-owned contractors didn't get their fair share of the contracts and work after the storm and he wants to see a list of the subcontractors hired by firms that won the cleanup contracts from the city and FEMA.
"I'm just trying to see what economic impact this had for the folks who were victimized," Hoyt said Tuesday. "Because number one, FEMA wants some of the money they spend to go back into these communities, and I wanna see what kind of real economic impact it has had."
Mayor Bell's office declined comment today but has said in the past that they worked hard to include minority-owned firms in the storm cleanup work.
The city will also refinance $67.5 million of existing debt. Finance Director Tom Barnett said the city could save about $3.5 million by doing so.
Councilman Steven Hoyt Monday objected to the new process proposed by Barnett because he said it limits smaller minority firms. The city normally selects the bond team and insists there be minority representation, but without that process, there's no guarantee of diversity, Hoyt said.
"I want full participation in every aspect we can have it," he said. "There is little to no minority participation in that process because minority companies don't have the billion-dollar capacity. The issue is to have inclusion as much as we can on the buying and the selling."
Hoyt the said the issue is not about a handout or favoritism, but enabling minority companies to grow their capacity for larger transactions. That can only be done through partnerships with larger companies, Hoyt said.
"I'm not looking for somebody to write a check," Hoyt said. "I'm looking for people to be able to participate from start to finish."
"Like cities worldwide, Birmingham continues to face serious challenges, and just as progress in those cities ebbs and flows, so will the same happen in Birmingham. But Birmingham has turned the corner and its future as one of America's progressive medium-sized cities is assured. In the chamber of the Birmingham City Council, on one of its walls, is the following slogan: "Cities Are What People Make Them."
The slogan reminds me of Shakespeare's words from Coriolanus, Act III: "What is the city but the people?"
In Birmingham, just like at McDonald's, it's 365Black all the time. And it is for this reason, the state of Birmingham must be classified as in need of being a 'comeback town.'
Fifty years later, does the condition of 74 percent black Birmingham not offer stark evidence as to why some people were so strenuously against the movement led by Saint Martin Luther King?