After lengthy debate, Council votes 6–3 to approve BJCC expansion/stadium project

The day after a lively Budget and Finance/Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday afternoon, the Birmingham City Council voted 6 to 3 on Tuesday to approve a funding agreement for the BJCC Stadium and Legacy Arena renovations.

The discussion on Tuesday lasted over five hours and was opened up for a public hearing that featured several dozen speakers, many of whom spoke in opposition of voting on the stadium, while some veered into topics that were unrelated to the stadium.

According to the agreement, the city will be contributing $3 million over a 30 year period to pay for the project. The council also voted unanimously to approve a resolution that would establish a Neighborhood Revitalization Fund that will be used to reinvest 100 percent of the revenue growth generated from the stadium and Legacy Arena expansion.

Last week, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill for a three percent increase to car rental tax in Jefferson County to help fund the stadium and renovations. That vote passed 14–3 from members of the Jefferson County Delegation. The total cost of the project is estimated to cost approximately $300 million for both the stadium and the modernization of the Legacy Arena and will create roughly 3,700 construction jobs during the construction phase, which is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2020.

“I’m glad we listened to every single person who had something to say about this because I feel like that’s important,” Woodfin said following the speakers who signed up to share their thoughts on the project. “I am supporting this for three reasons: neighborhoods, tourism and progress… Not once during any of those major projects — like Regions Field or CrossPlex — has a mayor stood before you and asked you to approve a higher step to create a Neighborhood Revitalization Fund where 100 percent of the additional revenue will go toward the neighborhoods. Because of that I am comfortable pushing back on anyone saying our priorities are out of whack.”

While the funding agreement was passed, there were dissenting voices from several of the council members.

“I’m trying to get on board,” Councilor Darrell O’Quinn said before the vote (O’Quinn would eventually be one of the three dissenting votes including Sheila Tyson and Lashunda Scales). ‘”I told this mayor I’m not opposed to the stadium. It offers the potential to be a source of revenue that could benefit the citizens of this city. But I make decisions based on information…What’s written right here matters. I have a problem being asked to make a decision on something that is put right in front of me this morning. What we got documents on Friday but they looked nothing like this. This mayor has been responsive and I applaud the mayor and his team for working hard to get this over the weekend. The fact is, I haven’t been able to get to a point where the citizens of Birmingham have a clear benefit in this project. I want to know there is a significant return of investment.”

Among those who spoke in favor of the new stadium were current UAB football players and former coaches.

“For 25 years it’s been a struggle to get UAB to where it needs to be and to get Birmingham where it needs to be,” said Jim Hilyer, the first football coach at UAB. “As long as coach Bill Clark is at UAB, it will fill stadiums and present UAB in a positive light. I would just like to say that through the progress of 25 years, UAB football is on a solid basis and can contribute to the city and to this group. I support this stadium and Birmingham moving forward”

Some residents offered other options for how the city could spend the money that was allocated to help fund the open-air stadium.

“I was at the Max [Transit] Expo last week and I heard it cost $500,000 for a bus to ride around Birminhgam,” said Shadaria Allison. “Constitutionally we are a stand-alone body with funding for public transportation. UAB buses come on time. They have a great transportation system. We make money on transit. Can we put money into that? I think it would be something to consider. In terms of where the money will go, you can make billions if you invest in transit. No I’m not for it. But I wanted to offer another solution. It’s easy to be against something. We can put that $90 million into transit and get our money back.”

Councilor Steven Hoyt said his mind was changed after Monday’s joint Budget and Finance/Committee of the Whole meeting, which featured a lengthy debate about the funding agreement for the BJCC project, including redline documents that included the changes and additions to the contract that were suggested by councilors.

“If you’re not creating economic opportunities in the city, you’re not going to grow,” Hoyt said. “By virtue of the BJCC being in Birmingham, we will see residuals. If a new restaurant comes on board we’ll see new jobs. That’s going to be an impact. Some of that may be realized right away and some may be later on. With Regions Field I was not on board initially. But as a result of that, how many apartment complexes do we have around here, and not all of them asked for incentives. I didn’t sign on until I saw my questions were reflected in this document. I was a no vote until yesterday.”

Seven weeks ago, Hoyt and other councilors submitted a five-page document with questions about minority-owned business inclusion an other issues surrounding the stadium.

One of the leading voices against the stadium was Councilor Lashunda Scales.

“I’m having heartburn on the word progress and how we define that,” Scales said. “A stadium doesn’t define progress. A dome would. A stadium that we already have does not. What do we tell the staff of Legion Field? What is hurtful to me is I heard very clearly when you were running, Mr. Mayor, a tale of two cities. I don’t care how much we don’t want to talk about it, we have a black mayor and predominantly black council and black people still can’t get basic services. I believed in you but I’m hurt today.”

Council President Valerie Abbott offered this summation toward the end of the discussion, just prior to the vote: “We keep talking about $90 million. We’re talking $3 million out of a $428 million budget every year — and that number could increase. But $3 million out of $428 million is actually is fairly normal amount for incentives that we offer to build things. The Summit, that was controversial. Railroad Park was controversial. We know, sitting up here, every decision we make isn’t going to make everyone happy. No matter which way we vote someone will be mad.”

This is a breaking story and more details about the BJCC stadium/expansion project will be published on March 28.