In the first of two parts, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin, fresh (and refreshed) from a lopsided re-election win, addressed five areas that must be improved before 2025 for his eight-year tenure to be deemed successful: violence crime, public schools, homelessness, the Land Bank Authority (affordable housing) and food deserts. And how he’s evolved since 2017. Here, he discusses how he will elevate spending with Black- and women-owned businesses, how the city’s library system must be addressed, and whether he will run for mayor again in 2025.
A parade of Birmingham mayors—Black mayors—has been criticized for a perceived dearth of Black millionaires in the city, a direct result, many believe, of a lack of intentionality in spending public dollars with Black- and women-owned businesses.
The oft-cited holy-grail is Atlanta, where former mayor Maynard Jackson threw down the gauntlet with local banks and businesses during historic tenure as the city’s first Black mayor in the 1970s and early 1980s and laid the foundation for a plethora of wealthy African Americans in the city.
In January, Birmingham revealed it spent $24.4 million with Black- and women-owned businesses in fiscal 2020. Last week, during a wide-ranging conversation with me about what he must accomplish before 2025 for his myriad promises to be fulfilled, Woodfin called that spending amount “unacceptable” and vowed to be more intentional—more Maynard Jackson-like—in his second term.
“I’m a fan of Maynard Jackson, as well as [former Washington D.C. mayor] Marion Barry,” he told me, “What they said to their business community is, ‘This is who we are, this is where we need to be. You have the option, we’re going to get there together, or things won’t grow the way they need to.”
“We have a very ambitious goal during the next four years in support of Black-owned businesses and women-owned businesses: We’re going to be unapologetic, and unabashed how we get there.”
That goal, the mayor shared, is for at least $100 million in public spending with minority-, women-owned businesses and other DBEs (disadvantaged business enterprises) by 2025. Getting there will require aggressive implementation and enforcement of spending requirements in order for businesses to qualify for tax incentives – particularly in the construction industry where more than $1 billion in projects is expected to be completed within the next few years.
In December 2016, you may recall, Topgolf, along with St. Louis-based ARCO Murray Construction Inc., signed an inclusion agreement with the City of Birmingham with a goal of 30 percent participation by minority- and women-owned firms in the construction of the now popular facility just east of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Convention Center. As an incentive, the city, in a separate project agreement, promised Top Golf a minimum annual payment of $228,000, or 30 percent of sales tax revenue, up to a cap of $1.5 million, to meet the goal.
Yet two companies shanked. In a letter to Topgolf dated May 28, 2019, and obtained by AL.com, Woodfin revealed Topgolf and Arco Murray, based on their own documentation, spent $601,919.99 with minority- and women-owned firms to complete the $24.6 million project—$17.1 million of which was building costs, $7.5 million was listed as “other” related costs.
That was just 3.52 percent of construction costs spent with minority firms, and 2.5 percent of total project costs, the letter outlined. As a result, the city terminated its project agreement with Topgolf and ARCO Murray and did not pay the incentive.
Woodfin says it will happen again if companies do not meet spending goals.
“I’m going to look this business community in the face and say: When it comes to spending tax dollars, these are our expectations,” he said. “No different than what we did with Topgolf. I’m going to hold everybody accountable because I’ll be held accountable. That’s not negotiable.”
Too many libraries?
This is not a very popular thought in Birmingham. The city has too many libraries. Too many per capita. I wrote that last October, about a month after Woodfin, in likely the most controversial decision of tenure thus far, furloughed 150 of the library system’s 211 full- and part-time employees in reacted to a projected $63 million in revenue loss due to COVID-19.
Folks went ballistic. In December, the Birmingham City Council approved borrowing $4.85 million from the city’s reserve fund to bring back up to 132 of the employees. That did not at all, though, address the chubby mammal in the room: Birmingham’s library system, which evolved during the height of the city’s tumultuous racial past, is bloated. To preserve segregation, branches were built within ridiculous proximity to each other because one building was for “whites only.” When whites took flight, buildings were left behind and adopted by neighborhoods that still cling to them.
Now, the city has 18 branches, a high number relative to our population (201,000), and among our Southeastern peers. Memphis (pop: 659,000 has 19 libraries; Nashville (700,000) has 21; New Orleans (400,000) just 15 libraries.
If the city was ever going to contend with some of its arcane systems, I shared with Woodfin, it would most likely happen during a mayoral second term. He paused.
“As a former school board member, I watched the whole process of combining schools, closing one or closing two and then opening up a new site because of a population decrease,” he began. “People don’t want to let go of things, and man, I genuinely understand that. In order for us to provide top-of-the-line customer and community service as it relates to learning, educating, and sharing of information, our library system needs to make some very tough unpopular decisions.
“Recommendations have been given to them by people they’ve hired to assess their system,” he continued. “They need to make those hard choices. Libraries have certain expectations of services to be provided to the community. Are [our libraries] providing the best services? The answer is no.
“Resources are spread too thin. If you have a library with a 1960s or 1970s model, but does not get the necessary foot traffic, and is literally in proximity of another library only one mile down the street, should both of those libraries be open? Or should they join and combine them better service for the community?”
The Birmingham library system is overseen by an independent board of directors, although all its funding from city coffers.
“I try to manage expectations, and I don’t go around picking fights,” Woodfin said. “However, I want people to understand the city of Birmingham has limited tax dollars. At a certain point, if it comes down to it, we’re willing to make tough, unpopular decisions if it’s the right thing to do. I’ll repeat myself: If it comes down to it, this administration is willing to make the tough unpopular decision if it’s the right thing to do. If it’s right, we will deal with it.
Before winning in 2017, Woodfin vowed to serve just two terms, if elected and re-elected. Now?
“That’s the plan,” he said. “Let me give you the words I want you to hear—for any city to continue to grow, it needs change. What I like about presidential and gubernatorial races in most states, [incumbents] are forced [out] every eight years, so you get continued growth.
“What happened in Birmingham is people run, run, run, and keep running. Mad respect for everybody that came before me. My appreciation for William Bell is respect and respect only. Same as Larry Langford, same as Bernard Kincaid, and especially Richard Arrington.
“But Birmingham is going to need another leader when I’m no longer that leader. And that person won’t be identified in 2025. That person needs to be identified in 2021. That’s fair for continued growth and intentional change for the better of Birmingham. You don’t want the same people sitting in the same seats forever.
Woodfin embraced his vulnerability 18 months into his first term, he says, while surrounded by mothers who’d lost children to gun violence and county health officials, and declaring gun violence in the city a public health crisis. By then we knew his brother, Ralph Jr., died from multiple gun wounds five years before. We knew just weeks before the election Ralph III, Woodfin’s nephew, was shot to death on his back porch in Tarrant.
It was the first time,” he said of that day, “I was comfortable with being vulnerable.”
Maybe that day, too, was the start of the mayor overcoming some of his own fears—at the age of 39, the same age his brother was killed. “The person you see in front of you is more settled in who I am as a human being,” he says. “Calmer. Less judging, more accepting. I try to strike a balance, even with family and friends.
“I’m not afraid of things anymore. Not afraid of anything.”
Not even swimming. As a child, Woodfin almost drowned, which seeded a deep fear of water. Now, he says, he can swim.
“I can’t float yet, but I can get from point A to B in the pool. I’m almost there. I am really. I’m close.”
Closer than to 2025, though not by much. Close enough to know there’s no room left to float.
More columns by Roy S. Johnson
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Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Morrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register. Reach him at email@example.com, follow him at twitter.com/roysj, or on Instagram @roysj.
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