December 29, 2005

Mayor Bernard Kincaid is insulted by a current butting of heads over a railroad park proposed for construction between 14th and 18th streets along First Avenue South. The city of Birmingham and Friends of the Railroad District [FORRD] are engaged in a power struggle over who will oversee development of the park which will include a two-acre lake, restaurant, small beach area, railroad museum, picnic areas, and a carousel. At press time, Giles Perkins, president of FORRD and a member of Birmingham City Council President Carole Smitherman’s recent re-election campaign, said the city and FORRD were not far from reaching an agreement.

“Perkins e-mailed my chief of staff [Al Herbert] . . . and said that we’re not very far apart,” said Kincaid. The Mayor has bristled at notions that FORRD should control the project. “But for Bernard Kincaid, we wouldn’t have the master plan that gave us this . . . We birthed this into creation. Not that I’m trying to take ownership, but I birthed this baby. And I’m not about to give it away. I’m willing to work with anyone to help me raise it. . . . I have invested an awful lot into its creation and guiding its creation.” At the December 13 City Council meeting, Councilor William Bell told Kincaid, “If we’re going to allow private developers—or a private group to come in and work on this, then they need to be given a free hand to the extent that they can go out and raise funds, to the extent that they can make decisions without—no offense—getting bogged down in the bureaucracy of city government.” Bell explained that there is no reason to work with the FORRD group if the city wants to control the project. “I’m a proponent of if we’re going to bring in private dollars, then we need to give them the kind of free hand that they need,” added Bell.

Kincaid responded that many investors will not fund the project if the money does not go to the city, especially the $2.5 million the Jefferson County Commission pledged on December 15. “What’s at issue, quite simply, is control. It is a city project, it’s city-owned property,” said Kincaid.

We didn’t start this project with someone else taking charge of it. In my opinion, that’s the tail wagging the dog. We welcome others helping us to raise funds to consummate the project, because it can not be done just out of city funds. We’re going to need private sources . . . So it then becomes incumbent upon us to strike an agreement such that those funds that can come to us, and they come to us because there is the perception that there is some oversight on our part and some guiding of this project by the city of Birmingham and its professionals.

The County Commission invited the entire Council to a December 15 presentation by the city to the County Commission, which in turn approved its $2.5 million match to that of the city. Only Councilors Joel Montgomery and Miriam Witherspoon attended the meeting, though the entire City Council is in support of the railroad park, with reservations. At the December 13 Council meeting, Councilor Roderick Royal complained that projects without the County Commission often do not work out. “I’m not at all against the project,” said Royal. “I think my biggest problem is that we’ve had so many arrangements that the city always gets caught holding the bag . . . We had the zoo. We had the regional thing that we were going to turn it over to the Friends of the Zoo. We’re still funding the zoo.” Royal added that the Friends of Avondale Park never wanted to take over Avondale Park. “Nobody wants to be a Friend of Legion Field. If you really want to do something, help Legion Field.” The comment brought a run of snickers from the Council chambers.

Giles Perkins, present of FORRD, told the Council that the project was modeled after a contract in Asheville, North Carolina, that he was alerted to by members of the Mayor’s steering committee, who planned the railroad park project. Perkins agreed with Councilor Bell that “to raise private sector money we have to have the appropriate authority to commit that the dollars are going to be spent the way that they have been pledged.” Negotiations have gone on for a year. Perkins, an original board member of the Birmingham Zoo when it went private, told councilors that his group is committed to the vision of consultants hired by the city to make preliminary designs of the park.

At the Finance and Administration committee meeting on December 12, Perkins told the Mayor and Council that FORRD would be happy to develop it and turn it over to the city. “That’s just the reciprocal [sic] of what should happen,” Kincaid said at the Council meeting the next day. “The city should develop it and then do as we did with Vulcan Park Foundation or with EBI—the zoo. We did it! We got it where it needed to be. We ushered it through all the processes, then we turned it over to an entity, not the reciprocal [sic]. And that’s what’s being asked for now.”

The Council voted to put $2.5 million into the project with stipulations that the Mayor update them on negotiations with FORRD by January 16, 2006, before presenting a final agreement by January 30, 2006. &

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