The city motto of Fairfield, Alabama — “An Older City Headed in a New Direction” — isn’t hard to find. It’s wrapped around the lower half of the city’s seal, a version of which hangs in the main hallway of the Fairfield Police Department, overlooking a group of city employees as they leave work for the day.
“Lord, bless this mess,” says one employee to no one in particular as she walks toward the exit, passing under several sagging, waterlogged ceiling tiles. “The things we put up with…” The door jams when she tries to open it. “Now they won’t even let us leave!” she cries with what seems to be equal parts good humor and bitterness.
The motto and the seal are also affixed to the front of Fairfield’s City Hall, staring out at at the city’s anemic downtown area, equal parts barred-windowed small businesses and boarded-up storefronts.
Inside City Hall, the seal is emblazoned on garbage cans, area rugs and the top of official city documents, including an agenda that’s initially passed out during a pre-meeting of the Fairfield City Council, held in a small conference room adjacent to the council’s chambers. The mood in the room is amiable at first, but as more arrive, including Mayor Kenneth Coachman, that sense of friendliness gives way to a barely concealed animosity.
“Don’t try to intimidate me tonight, because I ain’t in the mood for it,” snaps District 2 Councilor Gloria L. Matthews to District 5 Councilor Jerry D. Yarbrough. They’re arguing over the city’s recent payments of outstanding bills to AT&T. Matthews, chairman of the council’s finance committee, contends that the council had only approved paying $5,000 of the outstanding $10,000 bill the previous week, but that an additional two payments — of $3,215.19 and $565.08 — were made on Friday without her consent. “What’s up with that?” she asks angrily.
“Did we owe them the money?” Yarbrough repeats. “We were paying the bills!”
Council President Darnell Gardner raises his voice in an attempt to calm the heated discussion. “Whenever there’s a transfer of money, you’ve got to vote on it,” he says, then casts his eyes toward the mayor. “But it seems like certain people do whatever they want. So, if there’s nothing else, we can go to the floor.”
On the agenda for the evening’s council meeting: another $10,000 bill from AT&T.
For many residents, it’s been clear for years that the city’s “new direction” has not been a positive one. But Fairfield’s financial struggles and governmental dysfunction have become the subject of much greater attention in recent months, exacerbated by several high-profile economic blows that have cost the city jobs and tax revenue and forced its government to enact dramatic austerity measures.
On Friday, March 11, the city council voted 4-0 to disband the police department, effective April 1. On the following Friday, city employees’ paychecks were delayed for four hours following a dispute between Coachman and Matthews regarding financial records. Increasingly, it’s beginning to look like the Fairfield has two options left, neither ideal for the century-old city: bankruptcy or annexation into Birmingham.
“Strategic Alignment with Long-Term Plans”
Fairfield wasn’t always struggling. The city was originally founded in 1910 by U.S. Steel, designed to house workers from the corporation’s nearby manufacturing facility. The city was initially named Corey, after the second president of U.S. Steel. In March 1911, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at Corey’s main plaza in which he praised Corey’s founders “for their collective vision,” according to Encyclopedia of Alabama.
The town of Corey changed its name to Fairfield in 1913 after infidelity scandals forced Corey’s resignation from U.S. Steel; the city was officially incorporated in 1919. The nearby Miles College, which predates Fairfield by 12 years, was granted new land in the city in exchange for ceding its former campus to be developed into a coal mine.
The city continued to expand over the next few decades, benefiting from the increased steel demands incurred by World War II — during which U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Works reached its peak employment rate of 45,000 jobs.
Former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. grew up in Fairfield during this era of prosperity; he moved there with his family in 1940 at the age of five so that his father could work at the steel plant.
“It was a close-knit community,” Arrington recalls of Fairfield’s then-segregated black population. He describes the community as “peaceful,” attributing much of its sense of cohesion to the strong community leadership of Professor Edmond J. Oliver, the principal of the Fairfield Industrial High School, who Arrington’s memoir describes as “one of the best, most respected, and most feared educators I ever met in my educational career.”
“Most of the people in that community were steel workers and maids,” Arrington adds. “Everybody just knew everybody else.”
Fairfield’s population began to decline with the steel industry. According to census data, the city’s population peaked in 1960 with 15,816 residents. As of 2010’s census, the city had dropped to 11,117 residents, though a 2014 estimate speculated the population had since slipped even further to 10,998. (With an area of just 3.5 square miles, Fairfield remains the most densely populated incorporated area in the state.)
Commercial development continued beyond that peak, however, with the construction of the Western Hills Mall in 1970, Belleview Plaza in 1972 and the Flintridge Shopping Center in 1991. A Walmart Supercenter was introduced to the Western Hills Mall location in 2006.
“Then, all of a sudden, the bottom just fell out,” says Herman Carnes Jr., a neighborhood president and community activist who has lived in Fairfield his entire life. “Business was booming and we appeared to be doing well. And then people started leaving.”
Lloyd Noland Hospital, which had been constructed in 1919, folded in 2004 in the wake of the HealthSouth scandal. The hospital was bought by Miles College and demolished in 2009 to make way for a campus expansion. The Parisian department store at Western Hills Mall closed in 2004; J.C. Penney and Winn-Dixie followed in 2005. The Sears at the Flintridge Shopping Center closed in 2010.
U.S. Steel, meanwhile, permanently shut down its Fairfield blast furnace in November of last year, costing approximately 1,100 workers their jobs. On March 18, just hours after city employees received their delayed paychecks, the company announced that it would be idling its Fairfield Tubular Operations — a loss of 200 more jobs.
Of all of Fairfield’s economic setbacks in the past decade, though, perhaps the most widely publicized was the closing of Walmart at the end of January. Aside from the 100 laid-off employees (the other 180 workers at the location were placed in nearby jobs by the company), the impact of Walmart’s closing was felt most at City Hall. Walmart had been responsible for an estimated $125,000 of sales tax revenue for the city — an estimated 33 to 40 percent of the city’s total tax sales receipts, WTVM reported.
In a statement regarding the closure — the Fairfield location was one of 154 locations in the U.S. and 269 globally to be shuttered — Walmart says it “took into account a number of factors, including financial performance as well as strategic alignment with long-term plans.”
In a January New Yorker article focusing specifically on the Fairfield location’s closing, Ball State University professor Michael Hicks speculated that, rather than being responsible for the city’s decline, the closure was in response to it. “Walmart’s pulling out of places that are doing poorly,” he said. “Its decision doesn’t really precipitate bad times as much as it does accelerate bad times.”
Fairfield Fire Chief Kevin Sutton agrees. “Fairfield’s been struggling. It’s big news now, but this is not new to us,” he says. “Of course, everybody’s talking about Walmart, but there’s a lot of other things that have happened over the years. This has been coming for a long time.”
“It’s sort of a geometry thing,” he adds. “We’ve been falling. Now we’re about to bounce. We’re about to make impact.”
A Cloud of Confusion
For many Fairfield residents, the blame for that impending nadir belongs primarily to the city’s government, which recently has earned a reputation for being particularly dysfunctional. The relationship between Mayor Coachman and the city council has been strained for years, to say the least.
Perhaps the most vitriol, though, is between Coachman and Gardner, who have been locked in a power struggle that stops just short of the physical violence that has marked other council-mayor conflicts in Jefferson County.
In 2012, Gardner successfully sued Coachman after Coachman attempted to preside over— and vote during — council meetings; a judge ruled that Coachman could do neither. In August 2013, Coachman filed a harassment charge against Gardner, claiming that Gardner threatened him with physical violence; at a city council meeting the following month, he called on Gardner to resign “so as to mitigate the taint you have brought upon Fairfield and its public servants.”
In May 2014, Gardner — along with councilors Gloria Matthews, Willie Hardley Jr., Harry C. Lee Jr. and James E. Reasor — filed a lawsuit against Coachman, claiming among other things that he had refused to comply with council ordinances requiring him to provide financial records to the council and to council-hired auditors, to provide names to fill the job of city clerk, to sign checks for outstanding city attorney’s fees and to enact a gasoline use policy which would monitor and limit the amount of fuel used by city vehicles. The court ordered Coachman to add Gardner and Hardley to the city’s bank accounts, to allow auditors access to financial records and to provide a list of city clerk candidates. In February 2015, a judge dismissed the case, saying that Coachman had complied with the court’s orders.
The March 21, 2016 meeting of the Fairfield City Council focused on the following topics: Coachman not allowing the council access to financial records, the fact that a city clerk had not yet been hired, outstanding payments for city attorney Edward E. May II and the lack of enforcement of the council-approved gas-use policy.
“This is what we go through every week,” says a meeting attendee, a city employee who wishes to remain anonymous. “Things just go around and around. I’ve been coming to city council meetings for years trying to get some information and clarification, but I have yet to see anything actually get resolved. You can never walk into this meeting and get accurate information.”
That sense of dissatisfaction extends to at least some city leaders.
“I’m in a haze — in a cloud of confusion,” sighs Councilman Reasor in apparent frustration at one point during Monday’s meeting.
For Carnes — who delivered a pointed address to the mayor and council about competence in leadership when the meeting’s floor was opened to the public — Coachman holds the majority of the fault. Last year, Carnes was one of several organizers of a petition calling for Coachman’s resignation; the online petition received 206 signatures; more were collected by hand.
“In my opinion, since he’s been in office, we’ve only been going downhill,” Carnes says. “Here’s the thing: If you go to council meetings, you observe President Gardner ask for documents, and Mayor Coachman will say, ‘We’ll get it to you.’ The next council meeting, he never got it to him. He’s just prolonging. [The council] are doing what they can, in their best opinion, to make competent decisions. But they’re working with blindfolds. How do you make a legitimate decision not knowing all of the funds? There’s no way possible.
“You hear the mayor saying, ‘Since Walmart left…,’ but we can’t use excuses,” Carnes adds. “As a leader, you have to go out and find resources and meet with people. This isn’t just about him. This is about the people of Fairfield. We have citizens that are paying all their taxes, doing what they’re supposed to do, and they’re being neglected.”
Carnes says he believes that the mayor is withholding financial records because “he’s hiding something.”
“If you don’t have anything to hide, why not give what is needed?” he says. “There’s something that’s not right.”
“Put Two and Two Together”
From a police SUV parked in the middle of an empty lot, a Fairfield police officer surveys the abandoned shell of the former Walmart Supercenter. The sand-colored building is still recognizable thanks to the subtle outline of where the chain’s logo once was; a yellow “Store Closing” sign still hangs from the building’s façade.
“I better get out of here before my chief sees me talking to the press,” he laughs, insisting that he remain anonymous. Following the March 11 vote to dissolve the police department, the officer says that Police Chief Leon Bridges had instructed officers not to speak to the media — but the officer is too frustrated not to say something. “Fairfield used to be the best in the county in terms of pay for officers,” he says. “Now it’s the worst.” He, too, seems to place most of the blame on Coachman.
“The council and the mayor have been at each others’ throats for years,” he says. “But the mayor’s brought in no new business.
“That’s the old Walmart up the hill,” he says, gesturing toward another abandoned building a few blocks away. “Now the only big box store we have left here is the Home Depot.”
The officer speculates that Coachman is trying to force the annexation of Fairfield into Birmingham, reasoning that an annexation might benefit Coachman’s full-time employer: Miles College. (Coachman serves as the college’s chief of staff.)
Carnes shares that theory. “I feel that it’s because he works at Miles College,” he says. “Miles College wants to be Miles College of Birmingham, and the only way to do that would probably be to dissolve the city of Fairfield.”
Carnes says that he thinks Coachman has not allowed Fairfield the chance to become a college town for Miles in a way that Auburn has become for Auburn University. “It would boom!” he says. “That’s what’s so frustrating to the citizens. He’s not giving the city the opportunity.”
Does Carnes see Coachman’s dual roles with the city and Miles College as a conflict of interest? “Basically,” he says. “Put two and two together, you come up with four.”
Elections for both the mayor and council are slated for August. “What I hear, amongst the citizens, is that they want to replace them all,” says the anonymous attendee at the city council meeting. “That’s the general consensus. Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen. If we are able to make it to a new election, then I might also run. I think I’ve got something constructive to offer.”
“Let’s Do Something”
One figure that looms large over Fairfield’s current financial situation, though, isn’t currently involved in city government, nor does he currently reside in Fairfield or even the state of Alabama. Larry Langford, who served as mayor of Fairfield from 1988 to 2002, is currently in custody at the Lexington Federal Medical Center in Kentucky, where he is undergoing various medical treatments for several conditions that were discovered following his conviction for federal bribery and conspiracy charges in 2009. Langford, 68, is currently serving a 15-year sentence, though his family and supporters have petitioned for a “compassionate release” on account of his illness.
Langford, who would go on to serve as mayor of Birmingham from 2007 until 2009, remains a polarizing figure in Fairfield’s history. Some, such as Richard Arrington, see the root of Fairfield’s financial problems as having occurred “under Larry Langford’s leadership,” particularly the debts incurred during Langford’s push for the original Visionland theme park, which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2002 and operates today as the Alabama Splash Adventure water park.
“Langford screwed a lot of things up for us,” says the anonymous Fairfield police officer.
Others, such as Carnes, have a sympathetic, even fond view of Langford’s legacy. “He had a vision,” Carnes says, that other people mismanaged. “If you wash a car for someone else, and then they go drive it and get it dirty, they can’t blame you for that. That’s on them.”
Langford, writing via email from Kentucky, shares his perspective on Fairfield’s current economic struggles with Weld. Fairfield’s problem, he says, is not a unique one.
“Fairfield has not always had financial troubles,” he writes. “Even now, Fairfield isn’t the only city in Alabama having money issues. To begin with, there are too many small cities in our state, but people would rather have these ‘independent’ cities rather than merge with Birmingham or a larger city with more resources. Right now, there are some 34–35 cities in Jefferson County and with the exception of a few, many are struggling in some way. They will continue to struggle until someone with the political savvy to bring them together can, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
The solution, he says, is likely annexation: “Fairfield would be well-served to consider annexation into the city of Birmingham, and it’s just a matter of time before other cities will be forced to merge with other cities because of money shortages,” he writes. “Fairfield is contiguous to Birmingham, and it was just a matter of time before the annexation would become a necessity. Could this have been avoided? Not really. Downsizing by stores like Walmart or any major business in a small city is just a game of Russian Roulette. It’s just a question of who’s next.”
Langford indicates that he hopes the city he once led can be saved.
“Fairfield is very special to me, and always will be,” he writes. “Move quickly and do what must be done to find a solution. I hope that other struggling cities will follow suit.
“If these remarks anger some who just like to keep things like they are, that’s unfortunate. Through my family I try to keep up with the happenings in and around the Magic City, and on one hand I’d like to think I played a small role in some of the developments taking place that have sparked unprecedented growth.”
Langford urges Fairfield residents against complacency by invoking the slogan from his 2007 Birmingham mayoral campaign, writing: “For those who are fighting for Fairfield, it is time to start saying ‘Let’s do something.’ I have learned that you may fail sometimes if you try to make things happen, but you are guaranteed failure if you do nothing. Remember: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.’”
“The Very Last Alternative”
Langford’s isn’t the only voice that sees annexation as potentially beneficial to Fairfield. Though he stresses that the decision should just rest with the populace of informed Fairfield citizens, Arrington suggests that annexation “is probably a good solution to Fairfield’s problems, to be honest with you.”
Arrington’s tenure as mayor was marked by prolific annexation of areas surrounding Birmingham, including Roosevelt City and Brownville. Even so, Arrington remains decidedly ambivalent about whether or not annexation of Fairfield is the right move for Birmingham. “I know Fairfield has debts,” Arrington says. “I don’t know if [Birmingham] would be willing to absorb [those]. But if they annex it, unless Fairfield goes into bankruptcy, they’ll probably have to pick up that debt. Can the city of Birmingham absorb that debt? I don’t know.”
Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott doesn’t think it can. “We don’t have any extra money for that,” she told WBRC last month. “We already have far more needs than we do money, so I’m not up for adopting anyone.”
Coachman told WIAT in February that he considered annexation “the very, very last alternative that we will have to take,” and that the city was instead looking toward filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which is exclusively designed to help municipalities restructure their debts.
Carnes, meanwhile, says that he believes “the council is trying to do all that it can before they make a dramatic move with Chapter 9 or annexation. The citizens don’t want to be annexed. We’ve done a petition about it, and we have over 500 signatures stating that they would like to stay the city of Fairfield. But give us a chance,” Carnes says. “I would let annexation be the very last resort after we’ve tried. But everyone isn’t trying, so how do you jump to that? You find ways to hold on to something you love, if you love it.”
“Big City Problems in a Small Space”
Fairfield is an anomaly, says Fire Chief Kevin Sutton. “It’s one of the few cities in America that’s a planned city,” he says. “It’s built for economic success. You can actually get on a sidewalk in downtown Fairfield, and you don’t have to get off the sidewalk until you’re at the mall. The infrastructure is here.”
That so many people exist in such a small area, though, makes Fairfield a unique case study, he says: “The mall’s half the size it used to be and the hospital is torn down, but in the small space [of the city], we’ve had a mall, a hospital and a college. We have big city problems in a small space. We have a fully developed industrial area. About anything you can respond to in Birmingham, you respond to in Fairfield but with a lot less resources. [That] is why we get so much attention. It’s a packed-in city with all these problems.”
Though he’s not a Fairfield native and currently lives in Roebuck, Sutton says that the largely insular nature of the city means that it has developed a culture that makes its issues difficult for outsiders to understand. “A lot of the stuff you hear and a lot of the arguments you don’t understand, I don’t understand because I’m not a Fairfield native,” he says. “But you get people who have had long-standing feuds that their parents and their grandparents had… A lot of the stuff you hear [about Fairfield] on TV, you’re like, ‘That’s asinine. That’s ridiculous.’ But you don’t really understand.
“It’s a lot of personal things. It’s family feuds. You’ve got guys who haven’t lived a mile apart their whole lives and they’re fighting like cats and dogs. The people that are arguing, they’re more than just acquaintances. They know each other intimately.
“It’s not a bad town,” he adds, describing a recent outpouring of support from the community to help the cash-strapped fire department. “It has great citizens. The citizens are highly embarrassed by it all. They’re very proud. It’s a great community, and it makes my heart hurt because what you see on TV is not what this community is. It’s nowhere close.”
As of press time, Mayor Coachman, members of the city council, Police Chief Leon Davis and city attorney Edward May II had not responded to requests for comment.