Donald V. Watkins
Respecting the Wishes of Birmingham Voters
Updated: Apr 29, 2019
By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on April 25, 2019
After I published four articles about how Birmingham, Alabama’s mayor, city council, and park board blew a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to partner with Major League Baseball (MLB), I received a very thoughtful email from one of my readers. The author of the email wrote, “your position on City Hall is off base, in this case, unless you are going to call a spade a spade and leave no wiggle room or ambiguity in what you write to be misconstrued. The People voted for Abbott to be in her position as well as voted for the mayor.”
The writer raised a number of points that I need to clarify. All of them deserve further comment.
First, my emphasis on the MLB deal goes far beyond the $10 million the League was going to invest in the constructing four full-size baseball fields and a world-class Youth Baseball Academy at George Ward Park. It goes to placing Birmingham on the world map for something other than the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls and the shocking images of Bull Connor using firehoses and police dogs to attack peaceful civil rights demonstrators.
I learned about the vast national and international power of American-based major league professional sports organizations and their member teams through personal experience. In 2002, MLB qualified me as a bidder for the Anaheim Angels, which was owned by the Walt Disney Company. In 2003, the Angels sold to Arturo Moreno, who was a limited partner in the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2009, Goldman Sachs qualified me as a bidder for the Rosenbloom family’s 60% ownership interest in the St. Louis Rams. In 2010, Stan Kroenke, the sole limited partner in the Rams, exercised his right of first refusal at the last minute and bought the Rosenblooms’ 60% interest.
The biggest drawback I had during my competition for the Angels and Rams stemmed from the fact that I was from Birmingham, which was viewed by each organization as a third-tier city in a bottom-five state. Eventually, I was able to redirect the focus of MLB and the NFL back to the quality of my personal assets rather than where my businesses were headquartered.
Once I qualified as a bidder for a major league sports team ownership opportunity, I was exposed to the inner workings of MLB and the NFL and their vast network of empowerment opportunities. The cities that partner with MLB and the NFL have a tremendous competitive advantage over cities that do not. These sports organization are multi-billion dollar enterprises that can deliver tangible economic benefits to neighborhood schools, non-profit organizations, local businesses, and civic organizations within the sphere of their networking partnerships.
In this case, MLB wanted to partner with Birmingham. All the city had to do was host MLB's Youth Baseball Academy project at George Ward Park, rather than insulting the organization with a small-minded, self-centered, neighborhood-focused agenda.
The city’s mayor, council, and park board allowed Council President Valerie Abbott to single-handedly kill the MLB project. She was able to outthink, outwork and out maneuver all of these city officials combined. Like weak-kneed puppets, the other city officials accepted this embarrassing outcome and bowed out of a political fight with Abbott over this matter.
Abbott, who enjoys media support and protectionism from The Birmingham News and AL.com, was wrong in the merits of her opposition to the MLB project. However, from a political effectiveness standpoint, she did an outstanding job of representing the interest of the Glenn Iris neighborhood. This mostly white neighborhood trashed the project and disrespected the visiting delegation from MLB.
Mayor Randall Woodfin has been as silent as a church mouse on this blunder. Woodfin's silence tells me he tacitly supported Valerie Abbott’s "hit job" on MLB.
This is the second major blunder the City of Birmingham has made in the sports world within a year. In 2018, the City agreed to provide $90 million of the $174 million in funding for a new 55,000 seat open air stadium for University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football. Even though the City is providing the largest amount of money for the project, it does not control the hundreds of contracting and subcontracting opportunities related to the construction of the stadium or the plethora of ongoing revenue streams from stadium operations.
Furthermore, the City did not demand that businesses headquartered in Birmingham have first preference on contracting opportunities related to the project.
The other financing partners in the stadium project have total control and dominion over the expenditure of project financing monies and the economic empowerment opportunities derived from stadium operations.
Instead of controlling the stadium project, Birmingham city officials are just happy to have seats, hot dogs, and drinks in one of the luxury skyboxes during the UAB games. Somehow, these officials always seem to be content with the trapping of power, rather the exercise of power to deliver tangible benefits to the city’s residents and businesses.
For the record, I support the stadium project. However, Birmingham’s $90 million financing commitment, with no controlling rights as the largest financing partner, reflects very poorly on the city’s understanding of the power of its money. Furthermore, Birmingham is NOT respected as a partner in the project because it has no "purse string" rights.
If this is the quality and direction of leadership a majority of Birmingham voters wanted in the last municipal elections, then I respect their wishes. However, as a taxpayer and voter in the City, I will continue to speak out.
Unfortunately, I do not see things getting any better for Birmingham residents and businesses; I only see them getting worse.
PHOTO: MLB Youth Baseball Academy participants, officials, and supports in Washington, D.C. This opportunity could have occurred in Birmingham, but city officials blew it.