Who’s on First?

Who’s on First?

Your public official scorecard for the ongoing domed stadium debate.

April 19, 2007
As of April 13, Mayor Bernard Kincaid had no comment on the latest chapter in the ongoing soap opera involving Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County Commission about construction of a domed stadium, or “multipurpose facility” as Kincaid prefers to call it. Kincaid and Commission President Bettye Fine Collins had reached agreement a couple months earlier on a scaled-down version of the arena. Kincaid seemed confident that the facility would finally be constructed after more than a decade of debate. “When we met with the business leadership group, some of them wanted to see a business plan, which is being formulated as we speak,” Kincaid said at an April 10 press conference. “Upon its completion, I will then have them come back and present to the council, because it is a business decision, and hopefully at that point we can get the council to approve it.” The next day, the agreement between the Mayor and the commission president appeared to be crumbling when Collins announced that she would not support the arena unless the state legislature passes a bill that would keep in effect the county’s occupational tax. The tax is the county’s funding source for expansion of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

In February, Kincaid and Collins agreed on a facility smaller than the originally proposed 65,000 seats. The planned increase in exhibition space would be the same regardless of seating capacity. The BJCC board, which includes Kincaid and Collins, approved the proposal at a February 24 board retreat in Salt Lake City, Utah. Neither the Birmingham City Council nor the County Commission has approved the building of the proposed 40,000-seat arena.

Collins has previously opposed a domed stadium concept. She has since relaxed her previous opposition to football being played indoors at a multipurpose arena. Oddly, she refused to endorse the arena concept if the facility’s design allows for a future increase in seating capacity. BJCC executive director Jack Fields has said that

it would be too costly to retroactively increase the seating capacity if the arena was not designed with that option. Collins continued to balk at plans by Fields to spend $33 million of BJCC funds to add a 300-room extension to the adjacent Sheraton Hotel (also owned by the BJCC). Collins prefers that increased hotel space be paid for by private developers.

The Birmingham City Council had previously committed $8.8 million per year (for 30 years) for BJCC expansion when the facility’s proposed capacity was 65,000 seats. In February, after Kincaid and Collins found common ground for a smaller venue, Councilors Roderick Royal and Carol Duncan publicly supported the 40,000-seat facility. Councilors Carole Smitherman, Miriam Witherspoon, Steven Hoyt, and William Bell opposed the scaled-down arena (Smitherman has recently suggested that a “roof” be put over Legion Field). Councilors Valerie Abbott, Maxine Parker, and Joel Montgomery were undecided (Abbott and Montgomery opposed expansion proposals a year ago).

On April 16, the day before the County Commission was to vote on arena funding, several councilors elaborated on their stances. Abbott admitted she was leaning in favor of the project “if the sun, moon, and stars line up right,” adding that private investment for an entertainment district made building an arena more practical. Parker remained undecided, though she believed that it is not very pragmatic to limit seating to 40,000 with no expansion. “I don’t see what we’re getting for our full money’s worth with 40,000 seats,” noted Parker. Council President Smitherman has changed her mind somewhat. She now supports the smaller arena if improvements are also made to Legion Field. Witherspoon said she has not altered her position. “You always build a house with the anticipation of expanding,” said Witherspoon. “I don’t see the significance to building a domed stadium with a limited amount of seating without having the capacity to expand.”

The County Commission has committed $10 million annually, through 2008, to BJCC expansion. The commission also must approve the project, which would include extending the current annual payment until 2038. The county’s portion comes from an occupational tax that the state

legislature is considering for elimination. Commission President Collins said in the April 12 Birmingham News that it would be “foolish” for the commission to commit the money unless the legislature passes a bill guaranteeing the tax will remain.

Commissioner Larry Langford, a one-time proponent of a domed stadium, has stated he will not support a 40,000-seat arena that has no capacity to expand later. Langford has been critical of Kincaid and Collins for their newly formed close working relationship, since Kincaid failed to meet with him when Langford was commission president. Langford told the News that Collins and Kincaid had done little get their proposed arena accomplished since agreeing on the project.

Commissioner Shelia Smoot, who, like Langford, has voted for a domed stadium in the past, was initially undecided on the smaller facility, as was Commissioner Jim Carns. But after Collins began to back out of the deal, Smoot expressed her support for a domed arena. Langford reportedly now favors a larger arena with capacity exceeding 65,000. Carns shares Collins’ fear that the county cannot afford even the smaller facility without an occupational tax. Commissioner Bobby Humphryes has consistently opposed any domed stadium concept.

The cost for the 40,000-seat facility and related expansion is $505 million, whereas a 65,000-seat domed stadium would cost approximately $623 million. Governor Bob Riley has refused to commit state funds until the city and county approve the plan. As the time of this writing, the County Commission was scheduled to vote on April 17 on funding commitments for the arena. Neither arena proposals appear to have enough votes to pass. &

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