The mayor of Birmingham is out of his goddamn mind

The Birmingham City Council voted unanimously (with one abstention and one absence) yesterday on a “resolution of intent” to spend $90 million over 30 years toward a new football stadium. That’s along with $11.7 million a year from the state and county, all for a stadium that will be used mostly by the University of Alabama-Birmingham football team, plus a USL franchise.

That’s kind of a lot of money for a less-than-hugely-popular college team and minor-league soccer, but to hear Mayor Randall Woodfin tell it, this isn’t about supporting local sports. No, this is about an investment:

Addressing the council and members of the public, Mayor Randall Woodfin said the city needs to help fund the construction of the stadium to generate new revenue to pay for street paving, demolition of dilapidated houses and rebuilding sidewalks.

He said the city doesn’t currently have the money to pay for those priorities.

Here’s how Woodfin justifies this logic: The city will take $3 million a year that is currently going to pay debt service, and instead give it to the stadium. The stadium, in turn, will — according to a projection by the state-run Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which hasn’t revealed anything about how it came up with this number, to my knowledge — generate $9.9 million a year in new tax revenue for the city.

If that sounds like magic beans, it should, because as we calculated here last week, the stadium would need to consistently draw sold-out crowds of fans, each of whom would have to spend hundreds of dollars per game, and none of whom would have been spending their money in Birmingham otherwise, for those numbers to pencil out. The best you can say about this plan is it comes down to “hey, if the city spends some money on a stadium, the state will spend even more — maybe, if it decides to pass a new car rental tax surcharge — and maybe we’ll end up getting a new stadium on the cheap for city taxpayers.” But that’s not nearly the same as “building a stadium will be a cash cow for the city,” which as Roger Noll noted yesterday, is exactly the reasoning that cities should never be using for building new sports venues.

Fortunately, at least the members of the Birmingham city council seem to have their heads screwed on marginally better:

“None of us think this is a slam-dunk win,” Council President Valerie Abbott said. “The devil is in the details. The details haven’t been worked out,” she said, which is why only a resolution of intent was considered Tuesday.

So… maybe once the council realizes that there’ll be no money raining from heaven if they spend on a stadium, they’ll reverse course and vote against it? Or does this just mean “we’re not approving anything until the state passes that car-rental tax”? Ideally the council would have found a way to express its skepticism some other way than a unanimous “yes” vote, but when Mayor Woodfin is the alternative, I guess you have to take what you can get.


25 comments on “The mayor of Birmingham is out of his goddamn mind

  1. Are there enough people renting cars in Alabama to generate significant revenue from that tax? What do the citizens of Mobile and Huntsville get out it?

    Ugh!

  2. Saddest part is that the guy probably really believes what he’s saying. Woodfin is born and raised there and has been involved in just about everything locally–school board, city attorney, now mayor. Lesson here that caring isn’t enough to fix things; you actually have to make some good decisions, too.

  3. I’m not going to argue in favor or against, because I agree that the City needs to seriously look at the numbers and be reasonably sure they add up.

    However, something to consider…
    Birmingham is one of the few large cities in the country that is still losing residents. It started with white flight to the suburbs and never really stopped. What Birmingham needs desperately, and has been starting to do more successfully, is to bring those suburbanites back into the city to start enjoying themselves. Once they get comfortable within the city’s boundaries, and once they have more of the amenities we associate with cities (compared to suburbs); the more good things already happening in cities across the nation will start happening in Birmingham. Millennials generally drive less, they live in suburbs less. They tend to like cities a lot more than their parents did.

    Birmingham recently built a AA baseball park. It’s nice, and looks to be a lot more fun than the Barons’ old park in the suburbs. Did I mention that people actually go to the games now? The new park is across the street from a local craft brewing house. Meanwhile, new hotels have gone up in Downtown Birmingham; and the city has developed a reputation as one of the country’s fastest growing food cities. That, by the way, doesn’t happen without a very good food scene and an active tourism department.

    The stadium is not happening in a vacuum, nor can it be considered in a vacuum. Where the city invests, the private sector will also invest. Amenities are important to someone’s desire to live in the city. Which means that new housing will follow. Birmingham isn’t Seattle, where private investors have been falling all over themselves to build the arena the city has needed for years. This is a city that needs to invest in itself to survive. Amenities, public safety, efficient public transportation…. all of it.

    Several years ago, we decided to spend the weekend in Birmingham and found the city largely shuttered. A couple of years later, there was already a lot more going on when we visited again. Things are happening in the city, so this isn’t simply a matter of building the stadium and hoping for the best. This is part of an ongoing “rebirth,” for lack of a better term.

    I wish suburbs didn’t exist. They are artificial constructs that have historically split the tax base between rich suburbs and less affluent cities, making cities and their entire region worse off for it. Hoover and Mountain Brook don’t exist without Birmingham, so they really are part of an organic Birmingham without contributing to the city’s tax base. That’s what Birmingham and Detroit and Cleveland are up against. (The book “Cities Without Suburbs” by former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk should be required reading for anyone in local government). So drawing people back into the city starts with giving people good reasons to come to town. That’s what a stadium does, along with good restaurants, museums, opera, theater, parks, craft beer, public transportation, a local sports team the community at large can get behind — and great places to live in the middle of it all.

    Agree of not, but there is more to it than just… the stadium

    • So, Birmingham needs to give millennials a reason to move back to town, which they’re already doing, but they’ll really do it once downtown has a college football team … which is already there?

      Aside from the logic here not really working, there’s the question of whether the city could find more cost-effective ways of spending $3 million a year to draw people downtown, to which the answer is almost certainly “yes.” Like the mug says, you’d get more bang for your buck by going up in a helicopter over your downtown and throwing the money out the window.

      • Maybe you have more recent data than I do, but of all the nation’s bigger cities, Birmingham was the only city showing a net decrease in millennials from 2010-2015. The citation is the Brookings Institute and US Census Bureau: http://bit.ly/2DWiaio

        An article from the “Birmingham Business Journal” cited millennials as the demographic group most likely to be optimistic about Birmingham, but also most likely to leave it. https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/blog/2015/03/millennials-most-likely-to-love-bham-most-likely.html

        I think my logic works just fine. The point I’m making is that there may really be a value in spending $3 million per year. We just don’t know yet.

        I understand this is a site dedicated to proving how bad of a deal publicly funded stadiums are for their citizens; and while you’re mostly right, there are more shades of grey than that. Birmingham has significantly slowed its demise over the years, but it still hasn’t turned the corner. There is much work to be done. A stadium may or may not pencil out in this scenario, but don’t make the same mistake you accuse the City of making — and that is making up your mind without real numbers in front of you.

        • I have plenty of real numbers for the economic impact of football stadiums, as well as their ability to act as “catalysts” for further development. They’re pretty dismal. See Research above, as well as the work of Timothy Chapin at FSU.

          There’s a difference between being a site “dedicated to proving” how bad publicly funded stadiums are for their citizens and one dedicated to determining how bad they are, and concluding, “Yep, that’s bad.”

          • Okay, but you said that millennial are moving into Birmingham…and then didn’t offer any numbers. I tried to back up what I’m saying with actual numbers, but you instead change the subject. What’s funny is that I never said I disagree with you, just offered a broader and different perspective. Certainly one worth considering and getting more facts on. If this is a discussion site, then let’s discuss. If you are planning to offer a single narrative without keeping a somewhat open mind, then you are just trying to bully across your point of view,

            For what it’s worth, there is no reason for a 55k seat stadium. I can’t imagine what they’d do with that kind of capacity. So I probably agree with you on this specific stadium issue, at least as it pertains to its size. But there is more to any of these debates than your somewhat narrow-minded view.

          • No, *you* said millennials are moving to Birmingham:

            “Several years ago, we decided to spend the weekend in Birmingham and found the city largely shuttered. A couple of years later, there was already a lot more going on when we visited again.”

            Unless you mean that people are starting to visit Birmingham, but not millennials? Or they’re visiting but not moving there? And a football stadium is supposed to encourage this where a craft brewery didn’t? This is what I meant by not being able to follow your logic.

            I don’t want to bully anyone, and I don’t think I’m being narrow-minded. You just seem to be arguing both that Birmingham is up and coming and that it needs to spend $90 million on a football stadium before it will ever attract new residents/consumers, and those two things seem to be at odds.

          • Dude, I give up on you. Where do I say to spend $90 million on a stadium? I dont, not anywhere. Where do I say millennials are moving in? I specifically say they aren’t, after you say they are.

            I’ve observed anecdotally that more people are visiting Birmingham. I never said anyone was moving there.

            Anyway, this was fun.

          • “Where do I say to spend $90 million on a stadium?”

            “The point I’m making is that there may really be a value in spending $3 million per year.”

            I’m not arguing with you that a stadium can be an attraction for (some) people to (sometimes) visit a downtown and (maybe) move in. But all evidence shows that it’s a pretty minimal one at best, so if you’re looking for a way to create a “rebirth,” there are way better methods, and hardly any worse ones.

  4. In case anyone forgot, just a few years ago it was recommended that UAB shut down its football program. Big-money folks rallied to save it, at least for a while. Using taxpayer money for a stadium to benefit a college sports program that has a tenuous-at-best existence seems pretty risky.

    • It was only shut down because The Crimson Tide’s Board of Trustees hated the competition. Despite a stadium plan being ready to go that would’ve been much cheaper than this. University of Alabama actively working against the interests of the state’s largest city due to pettiness.

      • Is UAB really competition to the major schools in the state? If they hated them so much, I don’t think they would have signed off on a multi-million dollar athletic facility nor do I think they would have made up a study that documented the losses UAB would sustain if they kept the football program going.

        As someone pointed out in the last blog post, attendance fell as the season went on even though UAB had a winning record. Does a 55,000 seat make sense for a college football team that averages 20,000 people on a good day?

        • Of course it’s not competition to Alabama. But you have to know the story, and how much Alabama’s Board of Trustees hated UAB having a team. Even when a 25k stadium was a done deal, and no cost to them, they still shut down UAB football.

          The Tide likes to own the state. They refuse to play UAB, they refuse to play Troy, they refuse to play South Alabama — although those paycheck games would be great for those schools. It’s a matter of policy that the school has clearly stated, even recently. I always wondered if Alabama would be willing to play Auburn if it wasn’t for the fact that they are in the same conference and have to do so.

          You are right about a 55k seat stadium. I wouldn’t think it’s a good idea. It’s a little ridiculous for a program like UAB, and considering that more and more fans stay home and watch on their TVs. D3 soccer will need that kind of space even less. So the specific plan isn’t anything I’m supporting, just suggesting a different way of looking at things.

          • A 25k stadium was a done deal without any costs to anybody? All of the stadiums proposed in Birmingham were to be built by using taxpayer money. I have yet to see a proposal that used private money (if that is what you mean). The study showed money was not coming into UAB.

            Small colleges are going to take the same amount of money for a loss whether it is near or far away. I don’t see how it would be any different if Auburn or Alabama plays UAB versus them play Florida or Ohio State.

            I want the city of Birmingham to do well, but they should be more efficient with the use of tax payer funds.

  5. The idea that a lower-tier college football team, and an annual lower-tier college bowl game — along with a lower division pro soccer team — are things worthy of urgent attention and investment seems like a hollow conceit, at the very best. UAB football averaged less than 30k tickets sold per game last year (and even that number is iffy), yet the city wants to invest in a 50k+ capacity stadium?

    Just a heads up, the very first link in the piece takes us to an Amazon site instead of the article.

  6. There was most certainly a plan in place to kill UAB’s football team. It was a huge story in the sports world at the time. The Alabama board really hated having “competition” for resources within the system. It is the same reason that the main Nebraska campus allowed one of the other campuses to move to DI, IF they dropped football which they promptly did. However, Bama really hates having another school nearby even though Bama is second to no one really. Remember that Bama used to play home games at Legion Field for quite some time so they view Birmingham as theirs.

    I generally agree with Neil’s conclusions in the main article, but I just want to chime in that there was a conspiracy and secondly that college football is huge in Alabama (and in the South). However, the likelihood of this proposal doing all that is not great at all.

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