Semantics Antics

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A quick dictionary check gives a brief meaning of a word Birminghamians have come to know well… a word at the center of an economic development debate.

The word is dome.

Webster’s says it’s “a hemispherical vault or roof”.

Not House of Satan or torture chamber, miracle downtown fix or NFL team seducer, but the “vault or roof” of a big, big building.

We don’t need to tell that to Jack Fields. He knows the definition quite well.

“It’s a facility that has column-free space underneath the roof that allows for multiple types of usage.”

See? Multiple uses. Not just sports teams or boat shows, but multiple things.

Fields is the Executive Director of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Authority, the BJCC as we know it. He says opponents to the plan began demonizing the word dome nearly ten years ago during a very public debate over public financing of a multi-purpose facility. A debate where the words multiple use kept getting snuffed out.

“There was such a focus on football that dome and football have almost become synonymous and that is the only purpose of a dome. Now, a dome-type structure allows you to, yes, play football. But it doesn’t restrict you from doing other things which might be 90% of the use of what the building would utilized for.”

dome and football have almost become synonymous
The MAPS or Metro Area Projects Strategy plan of 1998 was also snuffed out. It sought to add a penny in Jefferson County sales tax in exchange for a myriad of goodies for the area: enhanced libraries, fixes to Vulcan, mass transit funding, a multiple-use facility. What was informally advertised as dome, the bad word.

“I don’t remember it necessarily being a bad word then. In fact, I don’t think it got to be a bad word until the public said we don’t want one.”

Jimmy Blake, Hoover physician, former Birmingham City Councilman and, most notably, nemesis to MAPS, says the word dome continues to languish in the lexicon because there are politicians who won’t take no for an answer.

“You’re going against what the public expressed its opinion to be when you continue to pursue this publicly-funded facility.”

I don't think it got to be a bad word until the public said we don't want one
Does the word arena change minds?

“Well, somebody obviously thinks it has more utility than the word dome and that’s why they keep using it or an expanded civic center or multi-use facility. But, that’s what everybody understood they were trying to do in the first place.”

Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid was a city councilman, like Blake, when the MAPS plan failed. And he knows the baggage that accompanies dome.

“We have some of the partners that must help fund… we have some of them saying ‘no debt, no dome, no Democrats’ … OK… and they were, not only did they run on that, they were elected on that. So they have a duty to carry out campaign promises. So we have to get away from the dome.”

So the debate evolves with another word: arena.

A quick check of Webster’s shows it’s a noun, and that it’s an enclosed space for public entertainment; a field of interest or activity; sphere.

Ooh, sphere! Probably less like a globe and more like realm. As in the sphere of this debate.

By getting away from the dome – in word and girth — the mayor says it’s digested easier.

“First of all a dome suggested a sports venue, where you’re trying to get a sports team and all. If we can get it back to a multi-purpose facility or an arena that has this floor space… if we look it that way, we understand it a lot better.”

Despite the fact that the plan has been shelved for now- because of legislative obstacles – there’s no doubt the mayor understands the politics behind bashing the plan and the public relations maneuvers toward that end.

So – same basic result – yet a bad word was exchanged for a more positive word. And the debate has taken a turn.

How utterly public relational.

“What one says and how one says it has all the importance of delivery of any message. And that’s critical in a debate and how words affect the whole spectrum.”

That’s David Davis, from DavisDenny Communications, a marketing firm whose job is to advance ideas. His firm has nothing to do with the dome or arena debate, but we wanted a tried-and-true communicator to talk about how words affect this game … the game of positives and negatives… of audience tests and focus groups.

“We call them games, because it’s time to make people to believe your side of a story over another side of the story. And we have all grown up around games where either you win, lose or draw. In the game of politics, there’s only a win or lose.”

Oh, and as we’ve discussed, this is political. And you can bet there are piles and spreadsheets of data about which word means what and how the audience will react.

But Jamie Harding with the PR and marketing firm Tandem Ideas says because government is involved, it adds a layer of difficulty – and anxiety – to the mix.

“I think anytime you’re talking about using public funds for anything, it tends to bring out emotions out of people… It’s not an easy sell these days. I think there’s a great mistrust of government, not just here in Birmingham or in Alabama, but everywhere. And a great mistrust of government’s ability to manage assets and manage money.”

That mistrust has hit a fevered pitch with sewer scandals, legislative punching matches and a former governor behind bars.

The BJCC folks have their work cut out for them. However much space – and value – this big, big building will add to the civic center seems to’ve gotten lost in the semantics debate.

And really, the only space that’s getting attention is that giant gap between the two, galvanized sides.



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