In contrast to the previous week’s 83-minute delay, the March 21 meeting of the Birmingham city council started relatively on time, with almost all of its members present. District 2’s Kim Rafferty was the only councilor not present at the meeting’s outset, though Council President Johnathan Austin would slip out partway through the meeting, leaving President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt in charge for the majority of proceedings. Mayor William Bell was also absent from the proceedings, though the meeting addressed several proposals from his office.
The meeting’s first major point of contention arose during a debate over the first of those, a proposed resolution that would allow the mayor to submit an application to obtain a license for “World Trade Center” designation status from the World Trade Centers Association, which would require a one-time fee of $250,000 as well as a monthly prorated fee of $12,500.
The license, if approved, would allow Birmingham to join a network of 99 other world trade centers, and would establish a space in the city for international businesses to occupy. But some, such as Councilor William Parker, found the proposal to be lacking in details.
Parker repeatedly pressed for a “game plan” when speaking to Kirk Atkinson, who attempted to address the council’s questions. Atkinson, president of the Birmingham-based business development company Adah International, had previously been contracted by the city council to facilitate the WTC application.
“Where are the particulars?” Parker asked Atkinson regarding what would happen if and when the license was approved. “Where’s the timeline to make sure all that stuff happens? It seems like that hasn’t necessarily been thought out… That’s a sticking point.”
Parker, along with Councilor Valerie Abbott, expressed a desire to find community funding partners before moving forward with the application. Austin expressed his opposition to delaying the proposal, remarking that the application was due the following Tuesday; Atkinson assured the councilors that if Birmingham’s application was approved, there would be a two-year grace period to establish those details.
District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales responded to Parker’s line of questioning by criticizing the international travel budgets of some city officials, though she made a point to not mention specific names. “I find some of these questions very interesting, because for every Germany trip, for every trip that went outside of the country, and certain folks said, within the 10 of us [the mayor and the council], that they were going to sell Birmingham to the world, you should be ashamed of yourself this morning,” she said. “The taxpayers are paying for the trips of some folk, and now [with this proposal], you have international trade that could possibly come into Birmingham, and we’re questioning that.
“So here’s what I’m going to start questioning going forward,” she added. “If certain travel is going outside the country, I’m going to say, ‘No.’ Then I’m going to put you on the spot and say, ‘Why?’ When you tell me you’re selling the city, and you’re having an opportunity that will give us economic opportunities outside of the U.S., and located in Birmingham, I’ll just say you’re a fraud. I don’t like crooked politicians.”
Hoyt, redirecting the discussion back to the proposal, expressed support for the license, but suggested that organizations such as the Birmingham Business Alliance and REV Birmingham — to both of which the city provides funding, he noted — could provide some financial support for the project. The World Trade Center project, he said, would be an opportunity “to get some return” on the city’s investment in those organizations. (Scales remarked that if the council could not rely on those organizations to be partners in the project, their funding should be removed from the city budget.)
“I agree with everyone sitting up here,” Austin added. “Everybody — even Councilor Parker. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and there are a lot of things to be fleshed out… But what I will say is, those things will happen.” Austin said that those details were typically fleshed out in the two-year “grace period” that Atkinson mentioned, and that the license would provide a tangible incentive for other organizations to get involved.
At the end of the discussion, the mayor’s office withdrew the resolution, meaning that the council would be unlikely to approve any application before the March 28 deadline; the next deadline for application is in June.
Another debate arose around a proposed ordinance, submitted by Bell and the Economic Development, Budget and Finance Committee, that would allocate $2,000,000 to a study regarding the potential future relocation of Interstate 20/59. Many councilors saw the proposal as a needless expenditure, given that plans to replace the interstate’s bridge through downtown Birmingham are already well underway.
Abbott was perhaps the ordinance’s most outspoken opponent, wondering aloud if it was just intended to “placate” unsuccessful advocates of moving the interstate, questioning its long-term usefulness and calling it a “waste of money, because what’s done is done.
“In 20 or 30 years, we’re going to have to do a new study. So why do the study now just so you can say, ‘Well, I told you you should have moved it’? I think most of us know it should have been moved, and ALDOT should have done this study 10 years ago,” she said. “But they didn’t.”
The council eventually voted for a three-week delay on voting for the ordinance.
The meeting’s last major discussion centered on the proposed sale of 28 acres of city-owned land (located at 2700 and 2750 Wenonah Oxmoor Road) to Vestavia-based company Tower Development for $642,000. The company’s planned development of the property into a 160-home subdivision, to be known as “Oxmoor Village,” ran into opposition from several councilors due to a nearby city-owned lake, some of which was to be included in the sale.
Hoyt’s concerns centered on selling city-owned “natural resources” — the lake — to private developers, refusing to vote for the sale unless the lake was excluded from the deal. “It’s a natural resource, and it belongs to the city,” he said. “I don’t think we need to be giving our natural resources to any developer, quite frankly.”
Though the representatives from Tower Development initially protested, saying that the lake was part of the reason they chose the property for development, they eventually acquiesced; the vote on the sale was tabled until the end of the meeting, when the developers returned with a revised proposal that did not include the lake; the council then approved the sale.
Items passed in bulk on the meeting’s consent agenda focused largely on removal of weeds and inoperable motor vehicles from public property. Other items on the consent agenda included an amendment to the general fund budget that would give the mayor’s office $174,184.62 “to replace City Hall security equipment”; an amendment to the grants fund budget that would appropriate $500,000 to extending the Vulcan Trail; and a resolution allowing Slice Pizza and Brewhouse, a restaurant in Birmingham’s Lakeview district, to use a nearby paved parking lot at 721 29th St. S. to host the annual SliceFest music festival.