Monthly Archives: June 2005

Runaway Bridegroom

Runaway Bridegroom

Rescues, weddings, and running away.

June 30, 2005

Each night during the early 1980s, a pimped-out, maroon and white 1971 Ford Thunderbird with six antennas and fluorescent neon lights that illuminated over-sized tailfins cruised the streets of Birmingham. The contraption was customized to resemble the Batmobile, complete with the Caped Crusader’s bat-shaped logo. A sign on each door read: “Rescue Ship . . . Will Help Anyone In Distress.” Orange shag carpet covered the floorboards. The car’s gadgets were mostly household appliances, rather than any high-tech gear associated with the real Batmobile. A couple of television screens, a toaster, 12 audio speakers, a soda fountain dispenser, a phonograph turntable, strobe lights, a microwave oven, and a kitchen sink with running water comprised a surreal interior that recalled the high camp of Adam West’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader in the 1960s television series. The rear side panels of the car were adorned with women’s names, including each gal’s personal observation of her own sexuality: Sexy Mona, the Sex Wonder of the World; Sexy Tiffany, International Lover; and Nikecia, Sexual Dynamite.The driver of this vehicle was Willie Perry, a Good Samaritan who proudly cast himself as “Batman.” Perry spent evenings and weekends (by day he was general manager of window distributor J.F. Day & Co.) cruising streets and highways for stranded motorists in need of roadside assistance. Perry would also pick up drunks and whisk them straight home (or to other bars) without accepting so much as a dollar in compensation. The Batmobile Rescue Ship, which was once featured in an episode of the television show “That’s Incredible!,” never failed to attract attention. When the Jacksons were in town years ago rehearsing for a tour, Michael Jackson ordered his limo driver to pull over so the singer could examine the Batmobile.

With Hollywood’s current release of the film Batman Begins following closely on the heels of the springtime adventures of a runaway bride from Georgia, I couldn’t help connecting the two events by recalling my own ride in the Rescue Ship 20 years ago. A friend hailed down the Batmobile the night before my wedding and asked Perry if he’d chauffeur me to the ceremony in Pleasant Grove. At noon the next day, the Batmobile appeared at my door with lights flashing. Sporting a white crash helmet, Superfly goggles, and a solemn expression suited to the magnitude of the mission at hand, Perry reveled in his role as Batman with touching sincerity. Handing me a cherry lollipop to calm my pre-nuptial nerves, Perry pointed at a pair of stranded motorists on the interstate during our 20-minute journey, commenting, “There’s some people in trouble, but I can’t stop now. I’ll help them on the way back.” In a celebratory mode, Perry intermittently blasted his seldom-used siren as we traveled down the highway. I felt as if I were in a comic book drama en route to face one of Batman’s arch-nemeses plotting to kidnap my bride. I didn’t know then that I was actually being cast in the role of villain—The Joker.

Upon arrival at the designated wedding site, it was immediately apparent that perhaps I should have hopped a west-bound Greyhound, as the runaway bride would do 20 years later. My friends thought the Batmobile idea was hilarious. My family was not surprised, having endured my sense of humor for 30 years. My betrothed and assorted future in-laws, however, were not amused. As I entered the wedding chapel, my future ex-mother-in-law offered a Valium, no doubt believing I was unstable and in need of some temporary taming. I gallantly refused the pill, because Batman would never be high on narcotics for his wedding day.

During the exchanging of vows, I realized that my decision to get married was a big mistake. As I had observed from attending past weddings, I looked directly at my bride-to-be while reciting my portion of the vows. She, on the other hand, refused to look at me. I began to regret not accepting that Valium. All I could think about was running away. I looked away from my bride and glanced out the window, but Willie Perry was already back on the highway, rescuing travellers from flat tires and overheated engines.

Willie Perry once fulfilled the dying wish of a 100-year-old man by taking him on a Sunday afternoon drive in the Batmobile. The elderly could often count on Perry for a ride to a doctor’s appointment. His free excursions for kids at birthday parties or to McDonald’s were legendary. He always carried jumper cables and was sometimes spotted siphoning gasoline from his Batmobile into the empty tanks of stranded vehicles. Adam West would have been proud. By the end of the summer of 1985, 44-year-old Willie Perry was found lying in a garage behind his place of employment. While tinkering with his beloved Batmobile, he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A year later, I got a divorce. &


City Council Approves Sears Building Purchase

City Council Approves Sears Building Purchase

June 30, 2005 

On June 14, the Birmingham City Council voted to spend $1.525 million to purchase the former Sears building in downtown Birmingham. Joel Montgomery was the only councilor to vote against the transaction. The dilapidated building, owned by Barber Properties, has been appraised at $3.05 million. The Birmingham Entrepreneurial Center, currently housed in the former Tillman-Levinson building, will pay the remainder of the purchase price. The Entrepreneurial Center will combine with UAB’s Office for the Advancement of Developing Industries [OADI] to move into the Sears structure after $12 million in renovations have been completed.

UAB has decided to close OADI, currently located in Oxmoor Valley. OADI Executive Director and Entrepreneurial Center President Susan Matlock said it has been difficult trying to attract to Oxmoor Valley any emerging businesses that result from technology commercialized by UAB. She added that UAB faculty affiliated with OADI had complained that the distance from campus to the Oxmoor location was a detriment to the process. Al Herbert of the Mayor’s office echoed Matlock’s observations about proximity, adding, “The tenants [at OADI] are displeased with the amount of travel time from the facility to downtown [Entrepreneurial Center].” OADI and the Entrepreneurial Center have been associated for approximately two decades.

Upon finalization of the transaction, the city will deed the purchased Sears property to the Entrepreneurial Center, according to guidelines stipulated in securing the $12 million loan. Part of the funding involves new market tax credits, which require that the Entrepreneurial Center spend all the funds by the end of the year following the one in which the money is borrowed. The city has the right to buy out the Entrepreneurial Center’s half of the initial $3.05-million purchase should the business incubator fail to secure the loan. If the Entrepreneurial Center sells the property to an unrelated third party, the city is entitled to recoup its investment plus 3 percent interest.

“I think $2.5 million to get 1,000 people to working is pretty good numbers.” —Councilor Carole Smitherman

Matlock said OADI and the Entrepreneurial Center have generated $1 billion in economic impact when applying economic multipliers, in addition to the revenue produced by industries in the business incubators. The “multipliers” reflect money turning over in the local economy, according to Matlock. Once the two incubators move into the Sears building, income of the expected 65 businesses that would be housed there is projected to be $334 million, with an additional $664 million when economic multipliers are factored in. Matlock said more than 1,200 are expected to be employed by the incubator. When asked how the new Entrepreneurial Center would be affected should businesses from OADI relocate elsewhere upon closure of the Oxmoor facility, Matlock said there have been 70 to 80 applicants per year for the business incubators over the past 20 years that the entities have been in operation. She did not feel that filling the new incubator should be a problem.

“I think $2.5 million to get 1,000 people to working is pretty good numbers,” said Councilor Carole Smitherman, who had been skeptical of the project during the June 6 finance and budget committee meeting. “If we’re going to capture the creative class and give them a place to work, to invent their ideas and make them work, I want to make sure that Birmingham is that place. What we are doing is fighting a battle every day to keep our young people in Birmingham.”

Councilor Roderick Royal questioned the wisdom of paying the fair market value for a property no one wants. (The Sears building has been an eyesore for well over a decade.) Royal, who supports the project, suggested, “I don’t think we ought to be paying for something, certainly at the appraisal price, that nobody else wants or has any use for at this time.” Councilor Joel Montgomery had asked for information from the city’s revenue department on June 10, regarding which graduates of the business incubators were paying property, sales, and occupational taxes to the city. As of June 20, Montgomery still had not received the information he requested. &

City Hall — Ready to Rumble


June 16, 2005

In lashing out at legislators who appear ready to change the makeup of the Birmingham Water Works Board, Mayor Bernard Kincaid may have kicked up more sand than rate-payers are prepared to swallow. Drawing lines in the regional sandbox that purchases water from the Birmingham system, Kincaid compared the plans of five Jefferson County state lawmakers to actions on par with “Jesse James.” The legislators—Jabbo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills; John Rogers, D-Birmingham; Eric Major, D-Fairfield; Jack Biddle, R-Gardendale; and Steve French, R-Mountain Brook—want to make the Water Works a regionally controlled entity. They insist that the board be expanded to include a more comprehensive representation of the area. Approximately 25 percent of the state uses Birmingham water.

The Mayor angrily dared surrounding municipalities to start their own systems if they didn’t want to purchase water from Birmingham. Apparently intent on taking jabs at every side, he then compared the contentious Water Works Board—whose outrageous salaries and unbridled rate increases have sparked outrage—to children. The Water Works Board voted unanimously on May 26 to increase rates by 6.5 percent, beginning July 1. Controversy has ensued, as the board claims rate increases are necessary because less water is being used. Several years ago, the board wanted to boost rates because too much water was consumed. Future rate increases are projected for January 2006 (8.75 percent) and January 2007 (7.75 percent).

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to have two executives making $186,000 . . . Board members who are supposed to be providing public service are being paid for telephone meetings. Or to go and cut a ribbon and be paid. That’s ridiculous!” Kincaid thundered at a press conference following the June 7 City Council meeting. “You might have a sick child, and because you have a sick child, that’s of benefit to a lot of the community, you can’t have outsiders just coming in taking that child. And so you have to discipline the child, if it’s yours, to the extent that you can. The discipline is the tether that the City Council holds with respect to board appointments.” (Kincaid couldn’t resist taking a shot at the Council, either. Referring to the appointment process as “a circus,” he criticized them for not being able to get behind one candidate to put on the board.) The Mayor added, “You don’t go to the Galleria and tell them that you’re going to take over because you don’t like what they are charging. You might negotiate with the owners and try to see if you can get some concessions made on what’s being charged. But you don’t Jesse James the enterprise.”

“Anyone who thinks that they can take the Birmingham Water Works from the control of the city of Birmingham is sadly mistaken if they think they can do it without one heck of a fight,” Kincaid told councilors. “If the Galleria is based in Hoover and the majority of people that come and purchase from the Galleria live outside the city of Hoover, do you think it’s right all of a sudden for the Galleria to be divvied up among the people who shop there? The same thing pertains with the Water Works of the city of Birmingham. It’s ours! If individual entities outside of the city decide that they want water, and they don’t want to get it from Birmingham, they can start their own systems. But when they purchase from us, they do it because we have some of the best water in the country . . . . We are a provider. Individuals who get water from us are consumers. But it gives them no right for management, it give them no right for ownership. It’s ours.” As Kincaid concluded his call-to-arms, Councilor Carole Smitherman practically shouted, “Let’s get ready to rumble! Let’s get it on!”

From his bully pulpit, Kincaid may view himself as simply kicking sand back in the faces of local state legislators who dare to challenge Birmingham’s control of water. But if he’s not able to wrestle the Water Works into submission as a city department, as he tried several years ago, the Mayor may find his constituents choking to death when the suburbs start their own water system. With fewer rate-payers, Birmingham water may eventually become a little too expensive to drink.

Downtown Blight May Be Renovated

Downtown Blight May Be Renovated

June 16, 2005

A downtown eyesore that has frayed relations between the city and developer George Barber might finally be resolved. At the June 6 meeting of the City Council’s finance and budget committee, Susan Matlock, executive director of UAB’s Office for the Advancement of Developing Industries [OADI] technology center and president of the Birmingham Entrepreneurial Center, presented plans to city officials. Under the proposal, the two entities would move to the long-abandoned Sears Building on First Avenue North. Barber Properties has reached an agreement to sell the property for $3.05 million, with the city and the Entrepreneurial Center splitting the cost evenly. The city has budgeted $1 million to the Entrepreneurial Center in the past five years. Matlock told city officials that consolidation of the two business incubators under one roof would increase efficiency. She added that the combined incubators would also be of benefit because as residential development continues to sprout in the downtown sector, new businesses will be attracted to the area. Up to 65 companies could potentially operate from the site.

The Entrepreneurial Center, located in the 100 block of 12th Street North, is sponsored by the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County, and private business. Both the Entrepreneurial Center and OADI, which is currently located in the Oxmoor Valley area, would relocate to the Sears property, which will require another $12 million for renovations. The OADI is a high-tech business incubator affiliated with UAB. The Entrepreneurial Center nurtures information technology and service for the light manufacturing industry.

Controversy between George Barber, owner of Barber Properties, and Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid over the dilapidated Sears structure deprived the city of a chance to host to one of the top motorcycle races in the world. A year ago, Barber asked the city to commit $250,000 annually for three years to bring the North American Grand Prix to the Barber Motorsports Park. The race is part of the MotoGP, a worldwide motorcycle racing series that is the equivalent of the Formula One racing circuit for automobiles. In exchange, Kincaid asked for control of the Sears property, but Barber would not comply, arguing that the economic impact to the city should be a sufficient swap. Famed Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California, got the Grand Prix instead.

At the meeting, Councilor Carole Smitherman remained skeptical, noting the large expenditure and past problems with Barber as she questioned if the proposal was the best use of the building. “You’re going to have to convince me that this is the best thing to do,” Smitherman said. “We’ve lost money with Mr. Barber because the Mayor demanded that he fix up the blight problem. So we didn’t get a chance to bid on the motorcycle races. So that’s lost revenue.” &

Mr. Barber’s Neighborhood

Mr. Barber’s Neighborhood

Tempers flare as George Barber reveals plans for his mountaintop condominium.

June 02, 2005
Don Erwin of Barber Properties presented former dairy tycoon and current real estate magnate George Barber’s Red Mountain development plan to some 60 residents at the Redmont Park neighborhood meeting May 24. Barber wants to build a six-story condominium and 21 private homes on 15.5 acres at the crest of the mountain. Two-thirds of the audience passionately denounced the proposal, which calls for a construction project estimated at $75 million. The gated community is to be called The Crest on Red Mountain and would be the only such structure standing on Red Mountain.Rumors about Barber’s building plans have swirled around the Redmont community for the past couple of years. “I know some folks thought we were going to build a tall skyscraper that was going to rival Vulcan, but that’s actually not the case,” Erwin told the neighborhood. At the meeting, drawings of the proposed development were viewed for the first time. Afterward, many residents compared the aesthetics of the condominium complex to a prison and others voiced concerns about the impact of an additional 200 cars on their street, as well as the strain on already tenuous sewer and water pressure situations.Erwin said Barber was focused on making the development a unique, attractive place to live. “If we just wanted to do the easy thing, what we could do is do a single-family, cookie-cutter housing development in there and probably do about 35 single-family houses. But that’s not something that we want to do. To us, that would be an example of a less-than-ideal change,” said Erwin. “The truth is that the Redmont Park neighborhood has always been changing . . . change is always going to occur. There’s nothing we can do to prevent it.”Noting that condominiums are vilified because the structures often block residents’ sight-lines of the city, Erwin pointed out that won’t be a problem with The Crest on Red Mountain. “One of the nice features of our project is that our building is right on the crest of the mountain, so we don’t block anybody’s view. By being on the top, there’s no view, that we can find, that’s blocked in any way,” he explained. The condominium units are expected to range from $650,000 to almost $1 million, depending on the square footage. The four 5,000-square-foot penthouses that will comprise the top floor would be about $2.5 million each. The homes are expected to sell for $850,000 on average.

Redmont Park is currently zoned R-1 (single family homes). A change to R-6 (multi-family homes) zoning allows condominium construction, but many residents question why the single-family homes portion of the acreage would need to be rezoned along with the condominium units. Others simply do not want any rezoning at all, preferring that only private homes be in the neighborhood. “My concern is zoning the property at R-6. I’m not convinced that they made the case for why that needs to be,” said Leah Webb, a Redmont resident. “Overall, I think that Mr. Erwin was trying very hard to make the case, but he just didn’t convince me that a [zoning] change had to be made. I don’t see how this is a win-win situation for anyone.”

Warning that the introduction of this condominium on the mountain will invite others to build the same, Redmont resident Bill Mudd predicted, “Sooner or later Vulcan will be a little blip on the skyline . . . Mudd asked Erwin why Barber didn’t build the development downtown, where the developer currently owns one of Birmingham’s more noxious blights, the long-abandoned Sears building on First Avenue North. Erwin responded that not everyone wants to live downtown. “If we’re going to be a viable city, we have to offer all kinds of living arrangements to different kinds of people. We have to offer condominiums in the middle of town. We have to offer lofts for young people; we have to offer single-family houses. We have to offer the whole range,” explained Erwin, who added that a deal was close to being wrapped up regarding the Sears property.

Erwin refused to delay the vote until the next month’s meeting, even though many residents requested a delay so they could have time to review the plans before voting on the project. The final tally from a secret ballot was 42 residents against the project, with 21 in favor. The neighborhood vote is only a recommendation to the Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) and is not binding. The ZAC will make a recommendation, and then pass its decision along to the Birmingham City Council, which has the final word. The ZAC will take up the matter on July 5.

Barber currently has two residences in Redmont Park. One has reportedly been abandoned for several years, and neighbors have complained about rats and an overgrown lawn at the site. An irate resident who lives in close proximity to the proposed development acreage angrily complained to Erwin that Barber has not bothered to discuss the project with her. Other neglected Barber properties make her doubt the developer’s intentions. “Now you’re going to build a project and keep your word? I doubt it,” she hissed at Erwin. &


City Hall — Homeless Plight and Blight



June 02, 2005

With Birmingham City Council elections only five months away, Councilor Elias Hendricks is feeling the heat from downtown and Five Points South merchants who want the city to do something about the urine, excrement, and sleeping bodies discovered on business doorsteps each morning. It’s been 18 months since Hendricks first proposed an ordinance that would crack down on such trespassing. But he “resents” Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s referencing the ordinance as “criminalization” of the homeless. “This is about trespassing and about definitions of trespassing, and how those definitions have to change as we become a more urban environment with people living (downtown),” Hendricks told the Mayor. “It’s not denying anybody access to shelters, and it’s not against the homeless. It’s against a behavior, no matter who’s exhibiting this behavior.”

At his May 24 press conference following the weekly City Council meeting, Mayor Kincaid addressed the issue. “I think there’s a duty to protect the businesspeople and the residents who live downtown, to be sure. But there’s also a duty to provide adequately for that genre of citizens [the homeless]. So we haven’t done all we could do. And the councilor that is presenting this ordinance is the councilor that was most vehement in his opposition to the [abandoned[ Parisian warehouse becoming the place that would house (the homeless). We could have additional housing facilities, we could have counseling facilities, we have job opportunities, all in that property that’s lying fallow sitting over there on 26th Street . . . But NIMBY is alive and well—Not In My Back Yard—and that’s what we get everywhere,” explained Kincaid. “Trespassing is a criminal act. You can’t take a criminal statute and attach this doorway portion to it and pretend it’s not criminal in its scope and nature. Criminal penalties don’t provide for civil remedies.” The Mayor also had a startling suggestion. Referencing Councilor Carole Smitherman’s solution to a vagrancy problem by erecting a fence around the entrance to her downtown law office, Kincaid said, “[Councilor Smitherman] talked about putting up a gate, and when the business is closed, the gate was closed. And the sleeping in her vestibule stopped. Maybe we as a city can make resources available to business owners as a stop-gap measure, to be sure, that will help abate the problem while we search for a permanent solution.”

“That just seems like a gigantic waste of money to build fences for private residences and businesses,” said Jeff Tenner, owner of Soca Clothing in Five Points South, in an interview the day after the Council delayed the ordinance. “If somebody wants to build a fence, they should build a fence themselves. But a much simpler (solution) is to pass this ordinance, which is not really a new law at all. It just defines a certain area to make sure that it’s specific to trespassing.”


“This is just a simple common-sense tool that says you cannot do things on my property that I don’t want you to do.” —Five Points South business owner Jeff Tenner

Tenner had addressed the Council during the Tuesday meeting. “Things need to happen simultaneously. We need to do what we can to get more shelter beds and to be able to help the people that need the help,” said Tenner. “But at the same time, we need to recognize that it’s an economic issue and that if we cannot give the police the tools needed to deal with those certain members of society who are breaking the laws, that it will affect the tax base . . . This is just a simple common-sense tool that says you cannot do things on my property that I don’t want you to do.”

Barbara Dawson, business manager of Chez Fon Fon in Five Points South, read a statement from Frank Stitt, owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fon Fon. Stitt noted that he is “saddened and disturbed by the decline of the Five Points District.” The restauranteur complained of loitering and “very conspicuous drug deals” made in the Five Points South area. Stitt commented that homeless persons sleeping in doorways are also more commonplace now. “Consequently, the daily observance of men and women urinating and defecating on the walls of buildings and in potted plants and alcoves is increasing as well,” he wrote. Stitt added that he had witnessed panhandlers harassing visitors and the “unsolicited rantings of a person or persons gathered around the fountain.”

Michelle Farley, executive director of Metropolitan Birmingham Services for the Homeless, was on the original task force that crafted the ordinance, which Hendricks previously delayed so concerns for the homeless could be addressed. “There was work being done on solving the problem rather than putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” said Farley. She explained that Birmingham has a chronic homelessness rate (those homeless for a year or more) of 29 percent as opposed to a national average of 20 percent. While she sympathizes with businesses that deal with excrement and loiterers in doorways, Farley said there is another aspect worth considering. “When people are asked to move along, they don’t really have a place to move along to,” she explained.

City Attorney Tamara Johnson said the challenge for the law department is “to try to fashion a penalty that will allow some kind of punishment for these individuals who are breaking a law that the Council will enact but, at the same time, have some kind of humanity in it.” Johnson added that penalties for loitering in doorways “really depended on the moral compass of the Council in terms of what they actually want in the ordinance.” At the suggestion of the law department, the ordinance will be rewritten to address such items as a lack of specific definitions for “plazas and common areas,” and to make enforcement of the law city-wide. =-

“It was poorly written,” Kincaid said of the ordinance. “No one in the law department takes authorship of this document, and it’s wrought with problems, as I see it, just from a legal standpoint: the absence of definitions, the applicability of one part of it to one part of town and not to the other.” &