Hoover Faces Crossroads Election
It’s far too late to rescue Hoover from its urban sprawl nightmare, but voters are going to the polls anyway.
For the first time in its history, the city of Hoover will be electing a full-time mayor on August 24. Nine days before the election, the city is scheduled to christen its controversial new Hoover Public Safety Building (located at Valleydale Road and Highway 31), a municipal behemoth that has mayoral candidates foaming at the mouth as they castigate incumbent Mayor Barbara McCollum for saddling Hoover with a project that currently has an estimated $32 million price tag. The structure, which was purchased for just over $7 million, has been described by various mayoral candidates as a white elephant, an albatross, a municipal monstrosity, and a Taj Mahal. Toss in a couple of other red-hot issues like unimpeded development and the booming Hispanic population, and McCollum’s opponents agree that Hoover is at a crossroads of unparalleled significance.
“One of the greatest mistakes our city has ever made,” proclaims candidate Bob Lochamy regarding the new public safety center. Lochamy is a one-time restauranteur, former radio personality, and public-relations and media consultant who peppers his campaign diatribes with quotes from former Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. While acknowledging Hoover’s need to expand municipal services to a larger facility, he grumbles that a location other than right across the street from a sign that reads “Welcome to Pelham” might have been more prudent. McCollum’s decision to purchase and move into the new public safety center was inexcusable, according to Lochamy. “If we could impeach or recall an elected official such as our mayor, then, in my opinion, this issue is an impeachable or recall offense.”
Candidate Tony Petelos, former commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources under two governors, and a three-term member of the state House of Representatives, refers to the public safety center as the “albatross down the street.” Petelos explains: “I felt like there wasn’t enough planning and enough information when they bought the building, and now we’re paying for it. The Mayor says it came in under budget, but the problem with that statement is that they didn’t put the police department there. The plan was to move all the police down there. All they’re doing is moving the jail and supervisors. So they’re calling it a public safety center without any police.”
Mayoral candidate and current Hoover City Councilor Jody Patterson calls the public safety center debacle “the biggest government waste project I’ve ever seen. It just blows me away that we waste taxpayers’ money like that. I’m just amazed that the general public has not gone ballistic over what the Mayor did,” said Patterson, adding that a Wal-Mart Supercenter and two Kmarts could fit inside the renovated building.
Candidate Walter Mims said the public safety center “is probably something we need, but I really don’t have much of an opinion. It’s probably something we’ll grow into.” But regarding economics and the blight that results from out-of-control development, Mims would like to see more focus on Highway 31, “the centerpiece” of Hoover. “We’ve got to do something to help the small businesses, which are the catalyst for everything. One of the first things I would do is create a small business council. And I might say ‘no more Wal-Marts!’”
Lochamy pledges to hire an economic development officer, preferably former local sports tycoon Art Clarkson. Lochamy would also like to see a 12,000-seat arena and a water theme park built in Hoover. He envisions revitalization of Lorna Road as a necessary step to ensure that Hoover has a stable, progressive future, and earlier had suggested that several apartment complexes on Lorna Road be demolished so that the new public safety building could go there. “We have a disproportionate number of apartment complexes located in a very tight area. It’s just a time bomb ticking. It’s not just the day laborers and congestion. There’s a myriad of problems. The core of our city is deteriorating,” says Lochamy. “. . . It is frightening to consider how precarious our future is . . . ”
To address blight, Patterson wants to “eliminate subsidizing new developments.” Patterson believes developers have gotten very good at pitting city against city with promises and financial incentives. “Let the market dictate which stores survive. When the demand for a new shopping center is there, the supply will come.”
“If we’re going to do new developments, let’s bring in some new type of retail, like the Bass Pro Shops, says Petelos. “We’re reshuffling Hoover businesses and putting some Hoover businesses at risk because there’s so much competition. . . . If we didn’t annex any more land, there’s still 30 percent undeveloped land in the city of Hoover. There’s a lot of growth potential available. So we need to do a better job with land-use planning. We need a master plan; we need a long-range strategic plan; we need a housing code.”
More than one candidate warns of the “Hispanic problem,” and the implementation of housing codes to limit how many people may occupy an apartment. “All we’re doing is attracting more illegals to the city of Hoover,” warns Petelos. He suggests that Hoover meet with surrounding municipalities and approach the federal government to urge that an INS officer be brought in, with local governments paying part or all of the salary. “So that we’ll have a presence here, so that when we have these illegals we can process them,” explains Petelos. “The problem now is that the Feds aren’t interested in processing them because they’re overburdened because there are only two INS officers in the state. We need to pull our head out of the sand and figure out how we’re going to address it without violating people’s constitutional rights, without violating the legal immigrants’ rights.”
Lochamy fears the gathering of Hispanics at day laborer pickup spots for those seeking work is getting out of control, but admits that area residents are to blame for perpetuating the problem. “We have to look in the mirror. Those who are hiring the day laborers and violating worker’s compensation and payroll taxes [are to blame].”
In addition to limiting the number of people sharing an apartment, Patterson wants to enforce driver’s license and automobile insurance laws. “If they’re illegal, they’re not welcome. If they’re legal, it doesn’t matter what race you are, what culture you come from.”
“With the unemployment low [1.8 percent in Hoover], we need the Hispanic population,” says Mims. “To a certain extent we exploit them, but to a certain extent they take advantage of things, too. Most of them want to be useful, and be contributors to society. . . . We need to get them started a little earlier on getting their kids to learning the language because that really slows them down in our schools. And it kind of holds some of our other kids back, too. We’re getting to be a diverse community, and I think there’s room for all of us.”
Despite repeated requests for an interview, Hoover Mayor Barbara McCollum was unavailable before press deadline.