The sign for the Uptown entertainment district can be seen from atop Red Mountain, a beacon for travelers looking for swanky lodging and entertainment in Birmingham.
Tad Snider, executive director for the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, hopes the newly opened entertainment district will be something for everyone in Birmingham to enjoy, not just well-to-do business executives looking for a pricey playground.
“We’ve always needed some type of walkable dining and entertainment options right at the convention center. That’s part of the sales pitch to get people to come to Birmingham,” Snider said while sitting at Octane, an upscale coffee shop and bar located adjacent to the Westin Hotel.
The plans for the entertainment district have been part of the BJCC’s long-term goals for quite a while, Snider explained.
“There was a point with the transition in city government when Mayor Bell came into office, and he saw the development of the Westin and what is now Uptown as an important project for his administration. That leads us to where we are now this summer,” Snider said, referencing the grand opening celebration scheduled for July 31.
Belle Adair, The Bear and Donnie Fritts will provide the music for the event. Tickets are $10 and all proceeds will go to Jones Valley Teaching Farm.
But how did this all come to fruition? How was it funded and to which demographics is this district catering? And most importantly, will people show up?
Bayer Properties is the leasing partner for the $65 million Uptown district, working with the City of Birmingham and the BJCC. Bayer is also responsible for retail outlets such as the Summit and Cahaba Village.
The funding for the project, Snider explained, came from public bonds that will be paid off with Birmingham’s lodging tax. The Westin alone accounts for $50 million in the total cost of the entertainment district.
“The construction associated with the Westin…was a bond issue issued by the city that’s backed by some lodging taxes. Everything that is associated with negotiating the tenant leases, getting the space built out, whatever, the financials of those deals are paid for the BJCC itself. And then there is rent paid on every space that repays those investments,” Snider said.
As of January 15, 2011 the lodging tax in Birmingham more than doubled from 3 percent to 6.5 percent to fund the effort to bring the Barons back to Birmingham with a lush new facility downtown. Now, this tax money is being used to repay the public bonds issued by the city to fund the Uptown district.
According to Elaine Witt, public relations manager for the BJCC, “$13.5 million was spent in association with the project’s bond issue by the Commercial Development Authority. This money was allocated to developing the entertainment district site; it was used for site improvements such as grading and utilities, as well as constructing the basic building ‘shells.’
“An additional $7.4 million in improvements was funded by the BJCC for tenant allowances associated with and amortized into the terms associated with each leased space,” Witt added.
The cost to book the cheapest room at the Westin is $199 per night. Add the sales tax for the room and the lodging tax, and the total comes to $233.83 a night.
The Sheraton, an older hotel, is not much cheaper, running about $222 a night after taxes for a standard room according to the websites of both hotels.
One of the biggest draws for the new hotel, Snider explained, is that it will “Get the BJCC to the 1,000-room mark that the Convention and Visitors Bureau needs to have in order to really sell packages to potential conventions,” which could possibly have some impact on Birmingham’s tourism revenue.
So is Uptown just a shiny new tactic to lure conventions to Birmingham? Who is Uptown really for?
According to Snider, Uptown isn’t just for people who are looking to stay in a nice hotel in Birmingham. “Ideally, I think there are a couple [demographics]. I don’t think necessarily it’s one group of people. Obviously there are the young professionals living and working downtown,” Snider said.
“We’ve also seen a lot of interest with those who live in and around Birmingham. You just walk and look around and see the people who show up. We don’t really have a good indicator yet exactly of what the profile of people who are patrons already. But there is something here for everybody. There is such a wide range of options, there is just something for everybody,” Snider said.
A Brazilian steakhouse, Texas de Brazil, which is part of a chain of restaurants, opened its Uptown doors in March. According to their website, “Texas de Brazil is carving out a new experience in fine dining. The restaurant is an authentic Brazilian-American ‘Churrascaria’, or steakhouse, that combines the cuisines of Southern Brazil with the generous spirit of Texas.”
A dinner at the Brazilian steakhouse will run customers $42.99 a plate (with “endless” meat options) and $24.99 for the “salad area.”
Todd English P.U.B. seems to cater to the same crowd, albeit slightly more affordably, with $15 burgers and $3 oysters. For the most part, entrees at Todd English are priced between $15-30. It would appear that the target demographic for Uptown, despite Snider’s calculations, would be a more affluent crowd.
On a weekday afternoon, people shuffle in and out of the few restaurants that have opened in Uptown — businessmen, a few children, people walking around curiously inspecting the new landscape by the BJCC.
Several police officers standing on three-wheeled scooters patrol the area and a team of gardeners are hard at work tending to the freshly planted grounds. By all accounts, Uptown’s exterior is fresh and seems to be blooming.
But will more people show up? Snider says yes.
“I think we’re beginning to see Uptown [reach its potential] once everything is opened. The early indicators are very encouraging. On any given night there is a lot of foot traffic, a lot of pedestrian traffic. As construction winds down and everything is presented in its final form, we only expect that trend to continue,” Snider explained confidently.
The district is now 100 percent leased, with Cantina Laredo, an upscale “modern” Mexican restaurant, and Bottle & Bone, a butcher shop that will feature a bacon bar and a private party room for bacon tasting parties, slated to open later this year.
“I think this place really fits into the momentum that’s happening downtown,” Snider said.
“Whether it’s the ball park, whether it’s Second Avenue, or the Lyric, there is just so much momentum and energy going on downtown. We feel like this is a piece of it — an important part of the puzzle.”
Only time will tell if the $65 million investment in Uptown will provide the return developers and the city anticipate, or whether “everybody” finds it equally enticing.