The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition.
— Israel Zangwill
What with all of the rightful hoopla over the past several months surrounding Birmingham’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the local climax of the Civil Rights Movement, I allowed another anniversary to slip by unnoted. That would be the 15th anniversary, last August, of the decisive rejection by Jefferson County voters of the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy, or MAPS.
For those who were not in Birmingham at the time, or who were too young then to now recall much of anything about the pitched campaigns for and against it, MAPS was — to understate it — a big deal. Audacious in its stated ambitions for the Birmingham region, the initiative was conceived in the presumptive need to expand the convention and event facilities at what then was known as the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. Accordingly, the centerpiece of the proposal was the publicly funded construction of a domed stadium — or, as proponents took pains to brand it, a “multi-purpose facility” at the BJCC.
Patterned on similar plans that had won voter approval in other cities — most notably Oklahoma City — MAPS proposed a $525 million program of new or improved educational and cultural amenities, to be funded by a countywide one-cent sales tax increase. In addition to the domed stadium, the slate of projects included the expansion of the Birmingham Public Library and the Birmingham Zoo; funding for restoration of the Vulcan statue and the historic Alabama and Lyric theaters; a network of walking and biking trails throughout the county; construction of an aquatic center; and implementation of a regional mass transit system. All of this was to be administered by a self-governing agency, autonomous from governmental jurisdiction or oversight, to be called the Jefferson County Progress Authority.
MAPS was supported by a $1.1 million campaign fund that came primarily from top local corporations (some of which have since disappeared via merger or buyout). Leading the way, with contributions of $100,000 apiece, were Alabama Power Company, BellSouth, HealthSouth Corporation and AmSouth and SouthTrust banks. The campaign chair was Donald Hess, then the CEO of the Birmingham-based Parisian department store chain and highly respected as a leading progressive businessman and supporter of civic and charitable causes.
A full-scale, months-long media blitz was launched, using the slogans “A Penny for Our Future” and “The Future Can’t Wait.” The fierce debate that ensued became increasingly nasty, and the airwaves of AM talk radio were filled with it for weeks before the August referendum.
Funded at a small fraction of the campaign for MAPS, opponents of its passage used that to their advantage, painting the most visible proponents of the referendum — Hess, Alabama Power CEO Elmer Harris, HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy and Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington — as fat cats who were looking only to line the pockets of cronies with public dollars. More substantively, the opposition zeroed in on the $350 million domed stadium, deriding the notion that it would be an engine of economic growth by citing studies showing that similar projects had brought little or no net benefit to the communities that built them.
Opponents also attacked the proposed Progress Authority. They pointed out that the enabling legislation for MAPS contained no “sunset” provision that would automatically repeal the sales tax increase once the MAPS projects were completed. Rightly or not, they floated the notion that the authority, immune from governmental oversight, would continue to collect the tax in perpetuity and use it as the authority’s members pleased.
The anti-elitist rhetoric of the grassroots opposition caught on. A racial element also developed, as many suburban whites were disinclined to favor any measure supported by Birmingham’s controversial black mayor, Arrington. Just days before the referendum, the city governments of Adamsville, Pleasant Grove and Trussville adopted resolutions opposing MAPS. On behalf of the referendum, Hess tried to counter the tide.
“If MAPS doesn’t make it, there is no other plan,” Hess told The Birmingham News. “The people who support it believe in building the future. They will not stop working for economic opportunity in this area, but I would be shocked to see anything like this ever again.”
Parenthetically, this would be the place to point out that I covered the MAPS campaign exhaustively as a reporter for Black & White — and that, in the issue published five days before the vote, editorialized against it. With the benefit of hindsight, I have come gradually over the past decade-and-a-half to wish I’d swallowed those concerns and written and voted differently.
Not that it would have made a difference. In the largest voter turnout of the decade other than the 1992 presidential election, 57 percent of those who went to the polls voted against MAPS. Tellingly, the referendum passed in the city of Birmingham with 60 percent of the vote, but failed virtually everywhere else in Jefferson County. In some boxes, the vote against was as much as 80 percent. And, true to Donald Hess’s Election Eve prophecy, no successor to the MAPS plan has emerged.
At this point, I need to confess that I’m writing about this for reasons other than the fact that I missed the anniversary of the MAPS vote. The main one is that I was part of a recent gathering in which, as part of a discussion of the proper role of our local corporations in encouraging and supporting Birmingham’s ongoing renaissance, it was suggested that the fate of MAPS — and the accompanying vilification of Hess and other top corporate leaders — has been, and will continue to be, justification for the business community to avoid sticking out its collective neck on critical issues affecting the community as a whole.
This view has always disturbed me — not because it isn’t true, nor because it is not to some extent understandable, but rather because I can’t for the life of me accept the excuse that getting beaten up for sticking my neck out 15 years ago means I should never again stick my neck out. Birmingham is blessed with a business community that is generous in supporting civic and charitable causes, as well as individual projects — some of which, like the Vulcan and Lyric restorations, were part of the failed MAPS plan — that move our community forward and are helping to perpetuate the momentum we continue at present to gain.
But if we’re going to take a quantum leap, we’re going to need someone — several someones —in the business community to do what Donald Hess did, and expose themselves to some criticism for the good of us all. As much as we need stronger, more visionary political leadership, we need the same from the private sector. If we’re going to tackle “big” things like mass transit and the future of I-20/59, we’re going to need it in even more visible and inspiring ways.