A Birmingham City Council investigation into the City of Birmingham’s negotiations with a black-owned grocery store chain ended last week with allegations from one city councilor that the city disdains black-owned businesses and that Birmingham Mayor William Bell did not call the city councilor after the councilor’s daughter was the victim of a stick-up. Bell responded to the assault on his character by blowing up in the council meeting, causing the grocery store chain owner to walk out. Bell and the chain owner later made up.
The fracas began when Birmingham City Council President Roderick Royal invited Greg Calhoun, owner of the Calhoun Foods chain of supermarkets, to update the council on the chain’s negotiations with the city to place stores in communities that lack supermarkets.
“I do have reason to believe that the city is dragging its feet,” Royal said during the meeting.
Calhoun said he toured Birmingham with city officials on Dec. 29 and was shown several empty buildings that once housed big box stores. Calhoun told the council he did not want to open a store in a building where previous businesses had failed—he wanted to do something “fresh” and build a new store.
Calhoun said the trouble with the city started then. “I heard on the radio, they said that I missed a meeting,” Calhoun said, referring to meetings with the city’s administration. “I never missed a meeting. I rescheduled a meeting.”
Bell said later that Calhoun missed four meetings.
After Calhoun spoke, Councilor Steven Hoyt said the city of Birmingham does not care about black-owned businesses, and that the city had provided “a truckload of incentives” to get other businesses to move to Birmingham.
“I wanted to say there’s a larger issue here — and I want to be very clear when I say this, because it’s evident — and that is that there is a great disdain for African-American businesses in this city,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt then mentioned crime and blight problems in some parts of the city, and he brought up the stick-up incident. “My daughter was held at gunpoint at Applebee’s, that the Mayor didn’t give me a call the night he heard about it,” Hoyt said. “He told me he heard about it—he didn’t give me a call.”
“Now, Councilor, that’s a flat-out lie. That is a flat-out lie,” Bell said, obviously incensed. “I did not know about your daughter until you told me about your daughter.”
“I do not play with people’s families,” Bell said, as Royal tried to regain order in the meeting. “If I had known that your daughter was in trouble, I would have been the first one to be on site,” Bell said as Royal gaveled away.
Bell turned his ire on Calhoun, asking if the city hadn’t given Calhoun a tour, if the city’s economic development representative had been working with Calhoun.
“Look, I’ve had—I’ve had four meetings set with you,” Bell said to Calhoun, as Royal continued to use his gavel in a futile attempt to restore order. “Listen, I don’t know whether or not you knew about it, but it was on my calendar.”
Mayor Bell directed his attention back to the council. “Mr. President, you all sit up there and do all that little insinuation,” Bell said. “I don’t want the public to think that here’s a black man, that I’m not trying to help him do business in the City of Birmingham, because that’s not true.”
“To say that I disdain black businesses in this community — that is a flat out lie!” Bell said, yelling, bouncing out of his seat, gesturing towards the city council dais. “And this man up here knows that it’s a lie, and this man knows that he’s just trying to throw fuel on stuff that is not true. And I’m not going to stand for it, and I’m not going to stand for you to come down here and imply that my staff, a black woman, who’s been trying to help more black businesses than anybody else in this city ever has, and then you’re going to try to impugn her character and this administration’s character?” Bell yelled over the council president’s requests that he quiet down. “I am not going to have it! I am just not going to have it!” Bell said.
Royal regained control of the meeting for one moment, but quickly lost it — this time to Calhoun.
“As a businessman, I don’t have to spend my money in Birmingham,” Calhoun said. “I got Atlanta waiting on me right now. I withdraw from Birmingham as of today,” Calhoun said, and stepped away from the podium.
“All right, and that’s unfortunate,” Royal said. He apologized to Calhoun and to the audience. “I can’t apologize on behalf of other politicians, but certainly, if there’s something that I’ve done today, then I apologize to you,” Royal said, and moved on with the council’s business.
Calhoun’s withdrawal did not last long. The Birmingham News reported last Thursday that Bell and Calhoun made up at a banquet for the A.G. Gaston Girls and Boys Club, and that they agreed to start fresh. The article featured a picture of Bell and Calhoun shaking hands.