On March 15, Mayor Kincaid’s office released a report from the city’s financial advisor, the Swarthmore Group, that indicated financial hemorrhaging at Visionland. The subjective tone and sarcastic phrasing of the report caused quite a stir at city headquarters. The report questions the hiring and firing of park managers, alleged payments to Fairfield Mayor Larry Langford and Fairfield City Clerk Melvin Turner, and debilitating financial losses incurred in 1999. One conclusion reads “There’s more blood here than at the local Red Cross unit” and the park’s dreadful 1999 season is summarized as one of “Rape, Pillage, and Plunder.”
Swarthmore’s Dan Maze, the author of the report, told the Birmingham News that the wording was intended for effect. “I wanted somebody to continue to read it,” Maze said. “Did I go over the line? I don’t know.” The 1999 season saw attendance fall by a devastating 100,000, resulting in a net loss of $9.2 million, even though the minutes from the July 8, 1999, West Jefferson Amusement Park Joint Board meeting claimed, “All’s well at Visionland.” Among the original 13 board members were Langford [chairman], former Governor Fob James, Elmer Harris [retired president and CEO of Alabama Power], County Commissioner Betty Fine Collins, and former State Legislator Jimmy Butts, who was recently convicted of accepting bribes relating to business with Visionland. No one was accused of offering the bribe. Visionland was a sponsor of a NASCAR race car driven by Butts’ son, reportedly a $50,000 investment.
According to the Swarthmore report, the Board of Directors of the West Jefferson Amusement and Public Park Authority [WJAPPA], which was created by 11 surrounding municipalities to deliver financial assistance to Visionland during the beginning years, met biannually until July 1999. Because the board did not meet again until November 2001, observers wondered who approved the hiring of the Ogden Park Management Services in June 2000 for $750,000 a year. The Swarthmore report urged the city to support the park for another year, then recommended that the facility be sold.
The City Council convened a committee-of-the-whole meeting on March 21, approving payment of the $1 million currently owed to the amusement facility. Councilor Carol Reynolds, the lone “no” vote against paying the $1 million, had invited Larry Langford to address the council that afternoon. Langford said he did not attend the meeting to defend himself. He addressed what he termed “bogus reports” that he was being paid by the park, explaining that he was only reimbursed for expenses. Langford urged the council to ask to see the checks allegedly paid to him. “If I did what they said, call the attorney general and put me in jail. It’s a real simple thing.” Langford said there has been interest expressed in purchasing the park. “It was never intended for us to try and stay there and operate the park until hell freezes over,” Langford said as he explained that the intent had always been to sell the amusement park in “five or six years.”
Langford blamed much of the disastrous 1999 season on bad luck. “The problem was, we had 52 days of rain, and by the time it stopped raining, the heat index went to 110 degrees and stayed there for the rest of the summer.” He added that an E. coli breakout at amusement parks around the country that summer frightened away patrons. Langford reminded the Council that a $6 million ride malfunctioned the first day of its operation. “The park overall has done what we had hoped the park would do,” said Langford. The property purchased for the park at the time sold for $3,000 an acre. Today, property in the area goes for $250,000 to $300,000 an acre, according to Langford. He noted that 27 million people pass along Interstate 20/59 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa yearly. “What we were trying to do was find a way to get people to stay here in Alabama for a couple of days and quit treating this state like a service station — come to get your gas and drive on through.”
“Our problem has been, how do you penetrate Jefferson County?” Langford said. He noted that if one out of every three county residents visited the park one time a year, in 10 years Visionland would be as large as Six Flags. “We can sell the park quicker with the park being open than if we closed it,” Langford said. He concluded by pointing out that Visionland had at least initiated “the first sign of real regional cooperation.”
Councilor Joel Montgomery has had his fill of loud music booming from automobiles cruising past his District One home. “It’s killing me,” said Montgomery. The noise also shakes “the front door of St. John’s United Methodist Church, where I worship on Sundays,” Montgomery adds with obvious disgust.
So the councilor decided it was time to tweak city codes addressing noise abatement. The present noise ordinance is considered unenforceable, according to Birmingham Police Chief Mike Coppage. Requirements that Birmingham police use decibel meters to gauge volume levels makes it difficult to catch a perpetrator in the act. By the time police arrive, the offending noise has been turned down. There are only about a dozen decibel meters at present for the entire force, adding to the difficulty of enforcing the law. Coppage explains that the only way to consistently deal with the problem is to have complainants sign arrest warrants against noise level violators, yet most are reluctant to do so because they fear retaliation or future harassment.
As Public Safety chairperson, Montgomery collected noise ordinances from various states and municipalities in search of a model for Birmingham’s code. He found his answer in Kansas, where a state noise code explicitly addresses vehicle stereos. “This is the first step to revising our noise ordinance as a whole,” promises Montgomery. Changes in city noise laws will only affect vehicles. Other sections of the overall noise ordinance will remain intact until they can be addressed at future Public Safety Committee meetings.
“This is going to free the police officer. If he hears somebody within a distance of 35 feet, in an automobile rumbling, this is going to be his discretion as to whether or not he can write that individual a fine,”
Montgomery explained. No decibel meter will be needed. “To me there’s no difference in this and if you were writing somebody a speeding ticket and you had no radar device in the car. You’re still taking the police officer’s word against the operator’s word.” The new law stipulates that discernable noise heard by other vehicle passengers within 10 feet of an automobile or 35 feet for those in buildings will be considered a violation.
Montgomery emphasizes that he has no problem with what anybody listens to “as long as I don’t have to hear it. And I certainly don’t want to hear it when I’m lying in my bed.”
Councilor Montgomery originally suggested a minimum hearing range of 50 feet from a building with regards to a passing vehicle stereo, but Chief Coppage asked for a compromise. “I think that the 50-foot limit is a little bit gracious,” said Coppage, who suggested a 25-foot minimum. Captain Roy Williams of the Birmingham Police Department estimates he could write up to 50 tickets a day just on the volume of music in cars in traffic. “Sometimes I can’t even hear my radio,” Williams says.
The ordinance must be reviewed by the city’s Law Department, then voted on by the Birmingham City Council. Penalties will not exceed $500 or more than six months imprisonment or both.
“This is really trite,” said Councilor Reynolds. “But what about the popsicle man? Will he be required to have a permit to play his music?” Chief Coppage said that he would have to consult the legal department about the popsicle man. Coppage stressed that the ordinance is aimed at “boom boxes” that shake cars and rattle houses when they drive past. “To me, that is minimal compared to the fighter jets going overhead,” Reynolds said, referring to noise pollution at her home near the Birmingham Airport where an Alabama Air Guard is housed. She explains that she is simply trying to find a realistic way of enforcement “without creating a police state.”
The ordinance will include exemptions for emergency and public safety vehicles, vehicles used by municipal utility companies, sanitation trucks, and vehicles used in authorized public activities such as parades, fireworks displays, sports events, and musical productions.
“Praise the Lord!” Montgomery noted with a smile when he read the sentence addressing limits on “bass reverberations,” surmising, “One day noise pollution will be as much of an issue as air pollution.”
The Cause That Refreshes
A few weeks after Council President Lee Loder chastised Councilor Gwen Sykes for allowing a Highland Avenue coffee shop [which supplied the Council with pastries] to plug itself during cable television broadcasts of meetings, Coca-Cola got in on the action. After presenting the city with $100,000 towards the restoration of Vulcan, Coca-Cola United President and CEO Claude Nielsen accepted accolades from the Council commemorating the soft drink’s 100th anniversary. Coca-Cola’s humble beginnings were nothing more than “one mule, one employee, and we delivered 18 cases of Coca-Cola,” said Nielsen. “Next year, in this community, we will sell over eight million cases of Coca-Cola.” The CEO expressed appreciation for the “opportunity to refresh each of you every day. You can count on us for at least another hundred years of refreshing this city.” In honor of the anniversary, six-pack cartons featuring the Birmingham skyline and a rendering of Vulcan were presented to each councilor. Loder held a carton so the TV cameras could get a close-up as Councilor Carole Smitherman laughed, “Everything goes better with Coke!” &