Monthly Archives: March 2002

Roll Away the Stone

Roll Away the Stone

This Easter morning, in addition to chocolate bunnies and brightly colored candy eggs, some children will awaken to their very first Easter Tomb Basket.


“I believe it was an inspiration of God that gave me the idea,” says Randy Jordan, creator of the “tomb baskets” and owner of Cornerstone Novelties, a business he runs with his wife, Virginia, in Thorsby, Alabama. After becoming a Christian 15 years ago, Jordan started a building company called Cornerstone Construction; the name was derived from Biblical teachings stating that “Jesus is the chief cornerstone.” About three years ago, Jordan’s novelty business began selling the plastic replicas of Jesus’ tomb. Baskets come in aqua, pink, or tan, and are filled with toys, candy, traditional plastic Easter grass, and a selection of Scriptures relating Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and ascension to Heaven. There’s even a tiny bendable figure with “Jesus Loves You” imprinted on its torso.

Jordan says he did not enter the novelty business for the money; rather, he seeks to teach children the real meaning of Easter. While future plans might include other religious novelties, Jordan admits that it is not up to him; he’s simply waiting on word from the real Creator. “God knows when I’ll be able to do something else. God will inspire,” he says. And who knows? One day Easter tombs may be as popular as Nativity scenes. The tomb basket is available at or by calling 888-770-1277.

City Hall — Langford Defends Visionland

City Hall


Langford Defends Visionland

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.”

Noise Ordinance

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!” &

City Hall — Public access

City Hall

Public access

Council committee-of-the-whole meetings are informal gatherings designed for councilors to hash out problems around the intimacy of a conference table. Though open to the public, they are held in a conference room where space is often limited, prompting occasional gripes from residents who can’t squeeze in. Occasionally, there are demands to move hot-button issues to the council chambers. At a recent Council meeting, Councilor Joel Montgomery mentioned that some of his constituents have recently complained about discussion concerning the Water Works assets battle being held at committee-of-the-whole meetings. Montgomery noted that Tuesday council meetings frequently include only a brief synopsis of what happened in committee-of-the-whole meetings. “I think the public deserves to see what goes on as far as the discussions in the committee-of-the-whole,” observed Montgomery. At that same Council meeting, Councilor Gwen Sykes suggested that committee-of-the-whole meetings be televised when addressing an issue with the magnitude of the Water Works debate. Council President Lee Loder explained that any item can be put on the council agenda if it is added by the Wednesday prior to the Tuesday council meeting. Defending the council’s open operating procedure, Loder said “I think this is one of the most open City Councils in the history of this city. We make every effort to do press releases and notify the public on everything.” Stressing that “‘convenience’ and ‘open’ are two entirely different things,” Loder added, “it probably costs more to be in here [council chambers] and have all the lights on. There are a lot of practical concerns why you wouldn’t want to use a big facility just because we have it.” Councilor Roderick Royal agreed that the “public should be completely aware of how the Council is deliberating.” Though noting that media are sometimes “slanted” because they “report whatever they like,” Royal said that at least three media representatives have been present at each committee-of-the-whole meeting he has attended. But he supports bringing such meetings into the council chamber should consensus dictate. “I’ll sit right here and say what I would have said [in conference rooms]!” Councilor Carole Smitherman echoed Loder’s comments that anything can be brought up on the council dais if it’s submitted in time. “I don’t meet in no smokey back rooms,” laughed Smitherman. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that we’re doing something in the back.”

Citizens Advisory Board supports night council meetings

At its February 18 meeting, the Citizens Advisory Board approved a resolution urging the City Council to conduct at least two meetings per month at night. Councilor Gwen Sykes first proposed evening meetings immediately after her election in November 2001, explaining that night gatherings would be “more representative of our community.” Council President Loder acknowledged that several councilors had expressed interest in holding a series of evening meetings as the previous council had done, which included one per month until each district had played host. Several surrounding municipalities, including Mt. Brook, Hoover, and Vestavia, meet at night.

Council reverses decision

At the February 26 City Council meeting, a trucking and excavating company located near the airport sought rezoning from “residential” to “light industrial.” There are only three homes in the neighborhood (“The trucks look better than most of the houses there,” bragged the trucking company boss.) Such rezoning would be an example of “spot zoning,” considered by many to be a political liability and a threat to residential stability. Councilor Carol Reynolds said the homes around the airport should be purchased due to airport expansion, and supports rezoning the area to commercial in this case. Sykes agreed with Reynolds that the airport neighborhood is different because it will always be threatened by blight due to airport expansion. Admitting that spot zoning is not encouraged, Councilor Carole Smitherman said that business is encouraged. Smitherman voted in support of the rezoning along with Councilors Reynolds, Miller, and Hendricks. Oddly, Sykes abstained. Councilor Montgomery refused to approve spot zoning in the airport neighborhood, fearing it would set a precedent allowing spot zoning in other neighborhoods.

During the following week, Council President Loder met with the city attorney, city clerk, and council administrator after investigating the accuracy of his previous decision, which stated that the four votes approving the rezoning did not constitute a majority of the nine voting members present [Three councilors voted "no" and two abstained]. Citing Roberts Rules of Order, the parliamentary guide for council conduct, Loder corrected his earlier stance that “abstention” votes are included in a total when seeking a majority. The denial of rezoning will be changed to approval of rezoning at the next council meeting after a vote to finalize the switch.

Loder elaborated that Council Administrator Jarvis Patton stated that there may be an “unwritten rule, at least by past practice, that the [previous] council has counted abstentions as actual votes,” said Loder. However, Loder said he would follow Roberts Rules of Order. Councilor Sykes asks the million dollar question: Could the previous council procedures regarding voting supersede present council procedure in a legal challenge?

Loder insisted he will follow Roberts Rules of Order unless he is shown otherwise. “Education is a wonderful thing,” said Councilor Smitherman. Lavishing praise on Loder for researching and correcting the procedural mistake, Smitherman asked everyone to give the Council President a round of applause. All complied with Smitherman’s request.

Police cars to be monitored

Computers similar to the “black boxes” used on aircraft will be placed in police patrol cars at a total cost of $199,000. According to Police Chief Mike Coppage, the boxes “chart the driving habits of the individual officer so that the supervisor can sit down with that officer and explain to him his good points and his bad points.” Over-revving, over-braking, speeding, and operation of sirens and blue lights will be monitored. Funding comes from a federal technology grant, according to Coppage.

Twenty patrol vehicles have recently been tested in the west precinct. The police chief noted that none of them were wrecked in the five months each carried the computer, a driving record that he called “absolutely fantastic.” Also onboard is an automatic vehicle-locator, capable of printing out a map of where the patrol car has been. “It’s also a management tool,” smiled Coppage. “If we happen to pull up that same map and find that we’ve got six police cars parked down at Krispy Kreme, then we want to know about that, too.” Public Safety Committee chairman Joel Montgomery marveled at the driving record that resulted from the computer enhanced patrol cars, asking, “Could I get one in my wife’s vehicle?” &

Gone in Sixty Seconds

Gone in Sixty Seconds

Who else but racing legend Mario Andretti could balance an IMAX camera on an Indy car traveling at 230 miles-per-hour? It’s all part of the filming involved in the new IMAX film, Super Speedway, at the McWane Center.

Speed demon Mario Andretti is the epitome of the handsome, charming race car driver. The most versatile champion in racing history, Andretti has won in Indy cars, stock cars, high-tech Formula I racers, sprint cars, and 24-hour endurance racing. Adding a Hollywood flourish, the Italian racer with the Tony Bennett-good looks drove for a team owned by actor and fellow driver Paul Newman.

Now, highly-acclaimed IMAX director Stephen Low gives audiences the rare opportunity to experience Andretti’s 230-mile-per-hour perspective. For Southerners open-minded enough to check out racing other than the NASCAR sort, the McWane Center’s IMAX Theatre will feature the documentary Super Speedway for a five-month run beginning Saturday, March 23. Indy cars are faster and quicker than stock cars, and their wheel-to-wheel, tension-fueled battles are breathtaking. The half-million dollar automobiles pull four G’s in the turns, and create enough suction to jerk manhole covers from streets on road course surfaces (covers are welded to the street for road races).

Andretti was lured out of semi-retirement to pilot an Indy race car fitted with an IMAX camera whose aerodynamically intrusive bulk raised concerns that the car would fail to reach top speeds. Refusing to participate unless filming was done under true racing conditions, the veteran driver put those doubts to rest when he hit 240 miles per hour. “You never really know what’s going to happen until you dive into a corner at over 200 miles per hour, because otherwise these cars don’t react,” says Andretti, describing the aerodynamic forces that drivers challenge in order to find the perfect balance between risk and opportunity. Testing a new car is a daring, unpredictable venture. “You don’t have the sense of what this animal is going to do,” Andretti comments. “These things can bite.” Initially, the camera would shut off when speeds hit 210 miles per hour because of “harmonic vibrations killing the electronics in the camera,” according to Andretti. Filming took place during practice sessions prior to each of four different races during the 1996 season, documenting Mario’s son Michael Andretti’s quest for the CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) championship. Mario Andretti was in control of switching the camera on and off, and it was up to him to find the best shots.

A second story line develops when an automobile restorer finds a 1964 Dean Van Line Special Roadster in an abandoned chicken coop in Indiana. It’s the same car that Mario Andretti drove at the 1964 Indianapolis 500. Restoration continues throughout the movie until Andretti is reunited with the reconditioned sparkling white and chrome Roadster at the film’s end. Vintage footage depicts races from earlier days, including an ample number of dramatic crashes to emphasize the risks drivers take.

The film transcends the titillating boundaries of in-car race cameras that project drivers’ perspectives during Sunday afternoon telecasts. Both Mario and Michael Andretti were amazed at the realism of IMAX racing. “With an on-board video camera, you don’t really get a true picture of what’s going on,” explains Mario. “This IMAX stuff will keep you on the edge of your seat because everything is happening the way the drivers see it.”

Super Speedway will be shown at the McWane Center March 23 through August 30. For more information, call 714-8300.