A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with Mayor William Bell. Let me be quick to note that I use the term “quality time” advisedly, and only as it applies to my own feeling about the hour or so the Mayor and I spent conversing. I acknowledge that Mayor Bell’s view of the relative value of the portion of his day that he allowed me probably differs from mine — and, indeed, that the degree of difference might be considerable.
In any case, the Mayor was generous with his time, having accepted our invitation to be the inaugural guest on The WeldCast, a bi-weekly podcast Weld will launch on Thursday, September 8. I’d be remiss in failing to note that the podcast is being made possible with support from SouthPace Properties; I don’t think it will strain the bounds of journalistic propriety if I add that SouthPace has been headquartered in downtown Birmingham for more than 30 years, and speculate that their sponsorship of The WeldCast is indicative of their ongoing interest — both corporate and civic — in the growth and development of our city.
So, what’s The WeldCast all about? Well, in extending the invitation to Mayor Bell, I stressed that the idea of the podcast is to engage leaders in every segment of our community — government and politics, business, education, the civic and charitable sectors, individuals and organizations on the neighborhood and community level — in substantive conversations about the present and future of Birmingham. We’ll talk not just about ideas and plans and intentions, but also in terms of specific policies and projects and initiatives that are being actively pursued — and about results that can be documented and monitored and measured over time.
We’ll talk mostly about how to make Birmingham better.
As the host of The WeldCast, my job is to ask questions and lead the conversation in ways that provide the listener not only with information and perspective directly from the source, but also with insight into the opportunities and challenges facing Birmingham. Listeners will gain firsthand knowledge of the personalities, issues, events and trends that will affect our community’s success — or failure — in dealing with those opportunities and challenges.
Weld itself is a haven for investigative, public interest journalism. We intend for The WeldCast to be a place where the public interest is carried out through civil discussion with people whose ideas and actions are presently shaping the future of Birmingham — and with people who aspire to that level of influence.
Hence, Mayor Bell, of whom I consistently have been a critic over the years, and of whom I have at times been — and expect to be again in the future — harshly critical. I didn’t ask the Mayor what he expected when he agreed to the interview, but I think the result is very much along the lines of the critical role we believe The WeldCast can play in promoting constructive local discourse.
Settled on a sofa in a small sitting room in the mayoral suite at City Hall, Bell spent roughly an hour answering questions and responding to specific criticisms of his policies and priorities as mayor. As always, his comments revealed an extensive knowledge of the workings of city government. But we also got into a discussion of his deeply held philosophy of governing, which is very much tied to the importance of high-profile projects like Railroad Park, Regions Field, and continued expansion of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (including the proposed new open-air football stadium).
Preparing to run for another term as mayor in 2017, Bell is very much aware that his style of governance — he calls it “a comprehensive approach to the redevelopment of our city” — has opened him up to charges that Birmingham’s progress has been mostly superficial. In fact, some say, the recent developments the mayor likes to tout have come largely at the expense of addressing deeply-rooted economic and social issues that continue to inhibit a city that is nearly three-quarters black, and in which roughly one-third of the population lives in poverty. Even while acknowledging the criticism, however, Bell says he’s willing to take it because he is confident that the steps his administration is taking now will pay dividends over the long term.
“Oftentimes,” Bell said in our interview, “changes are not manifested in a short period of time. People lose the connectivity between the work you’re doing now and the outcome that comes later. You have to stay the course.”
In hopes of whetting your appetite for The WeldCast in general, and in particular for the opportunity to hear from the mayor of our city, I’ll share a few more excerpts from our wide-ranging conversation. For instance, on the hot-button subject of the present and future of I-20/59 through downtown Birmingham — which he stated that he “absolutely” would like to see moved “in the future” — the Mayor said:
“[The Alabama Department of Transportation] is working with us on a number of other projects. I don’t want to go to war with them over the 59/20 issue and jeopardize some other things that we’re trying to do…. [Move I-20/59, the group that is calling for ALDOT to find an alternative to its current plan for the highway] are a little too heavy-handed in their approach…I’ve sat down with them, I’ve listened to the arguments they’ve made, [but] these are arguments that should have been made a long time ago.”
On the current, bitter power struggle between himself and the Birmingham City Council: “What has happened between the mayor and council is that some councilors don’t understand the full impact of their decisions on the direction of the city. The city has to speak with one voice, and that’s through the mayor.
“There’s always a push and pull between the mayor and the council. But never has there been the overall effort to diminish the role of the mayor that is being done right now…. At the end of the day, as mayor, you have to stand steadfast in protecting the office of the mayor. Because it’s not just the office of the mayor, it’s the image of the city, and a representation of the city itself.”
“I think it [the bad mayor-council relations] has slowed the positive track we’ve been on. In the past four or five years, we’ve turned this city around, and all of that is put in jeopardy by what is going on right now.”
On poverty, gentrification, the relationship between the two — and what his administration is doing about all of it:
“[Birmingham] had outmigration of whites for decades. You had outmigration of affluent blacks for decades. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where people will start moving back into the city, because then you begin to raise the income level, and you attract [larger companies and higher-wage jobs].
“That’s how you eliminate poverty. You don’t eliminate poverty by having all poor people living in an area that doesn’t have the resources necessary to lift itself up.
“How do you put in seed projects that will catalyze other projects that will expand your tax base and give you greater resources to do those things that you need to do in the communities?
“You are strengthening neighborhoods when you build in the businesses and the resources necessary to attract more and more people.”
“You have to do it in balance. Downtown, because it had lost businesses for so long, became the image of Birmingham not moving forward. I came into office saying, ‘If your living room is not cleaned up, nobody cares what your kitchen and bedroom look like. Downtown is our living room. Forty percent of our tax revenue comes from the downtown area, and that provides us with the tax base to begin doing things in other areas.”
On his political style: “Administrations are personality-driven. There are some things that I’m very good at that other mayors lack. There are certain things that I lack that other mayors are very good at. My strong point is that I do have vision, but I’m sort of a technocrat, in that I believe in doing things the right way.
“You have to take some risks. Some mayors won’t take any risks. Some will gamble the whole city away…”
And that’s just a sampling. On behalf of Weld and myself — and, presumably, Mayor Bell — I hope you’ll see fit to listen to the interview in its entirety when it’s posted on Thursday the 8th. And I hope you’ll stay tuned to The WeldCast, of which more details — including future guests — will be forthcoming soon.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a final quote from Mayor Bell, a comment he made toward the end of our time together a couple of weeks back. He was touting the “vibrancy that we have created” in Birmingham when he said something that conveyed a deeper sense of understanding about the essence of politics and government (in the spirit of the watchdog press and the history of my long and loyal skepticism of William Bell, I cannot resist observing that the mayor’s understanding of this seems to be deepening even further in opportune coincidence with next year’s election, and the need to convince many citizens of the “balance” he is striking in the distribution of the city’s resources among various neighborhoods and constituencies).
In any case, what Mayor Bell said — and with which I can only raise my hands in absolute agreement — was this:
“A city is an organism that constantly needs nurturing.”
Here’s hoping that, starting with the mayor’s appearance, The WeldCast can contribute to that effort.