This year will be better than last year, Mayor Randall Woodfin assured residents during his annual State of the Community speech Monday afternoon.
After a tumultuous 2020, which saw the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest over systemic racism, Woodfin promised greater opportunity in 2021 and reiterated his commitment to neighborhood revitalization.
“We have indeed been tested, and I believe as a city we are stronger and closer because of it,” he said.
He delivered the speech via a prerecorded video broadcast through the city’s Facebook page. The speech was followed by a short question-and-answer session, also prerecorded, hosted by former WVTM 13 anchor Eunice Elliott.
Woodfin is still recovering from COVID-19, which he tested positive for on Dec. 30. He was hospitalized earlier this month with COVID-related pneumonia in his left lung. During his speech, Woodfin said that his hospitalization made him experience the pandemic “in a new and disturbing way.”
“I won’t lie to you, it was a rough couple of weeks,” Woodfin told Elliott, adding that he is “not 100% yet” but “way better than I was.”
Woodfin also acknowledged the events of May 31, when a protest in Linn Park over the killing of George Floyd became violent, resulting in property damage at several downtown businesses.
“I vividly recall the night of May 31, when the fury that had erupted nationwide over the injustice of George Floyd made its way to our streets,” Woodfin said. “I remember walking the streets of our city, seeing the damage firsthand. And as we moved to secure our community and help those whose windows were shattered and livelihoods hung in the balance, I was so struck by the spirit of our city. … I remember a young mother brought her children to Linn Park to clean up the debris, explaining this is our home, and we must take care of our home.”
Protestors’ concerns about police accountability, he added, are being addressed by changes suggested by the city’s Public Safety Task Force, which he said he hoped would give the public confidence to cooperate with the Birmingham Police Department in tackling the city’s rising homicide rate.
“While overall violent crime, including rapes and robberies and many others, have been reduced for a second consecutive year in our city, unfortunately homicides remain up,” Woodfin said. “If I’m honest with you, this keeps me up at night … Through law enforcement strategies, we’ve seen gains and some improvement, but it doesn’t happen through enforcement alone. The truth is, we need everyone’s collective help … In order to build safer neighborhoods, we must also ensure confidence in our public safety system.”
Woodfin said that his primary focus for 2021 is the same one he’s had since his 2017 campaign: neighborhood revitalization.
“Even in the face from a global pandemic and economic crisis, we have not deviated from governing our laser focus on neighborhood revitalization,” he said. “Despite the economic crisis which has created a projected revenue shortfall for our budget, we remain committed to investing in our neighborhoods through street resurfacing, sidewalk repair and so much more.”
He pointed to the ongoing renovation of “key commercial hubs” in various neighborhoods, including the Ramsay-McCormack Building in Ensley, Century Plaza in Crestwood and Carraway Hospital in Druid Hills — all long-abandoned buildings being demolished for new development.
Approximately 1,100 dilapidated structures, mostly houses, have been removed from Birmingham neighborhoods since he took office, Woodfin added. Now, he said, the city would redirect some of its focus to filling those empty lots. “What we don’t want is a snaggletoothed neighborhood,” he said. “Now, what we’ve got to shift our energy to is going vertical with more single-family housing,” he told Elliott. “I think we’re in a position to partner with the federal government related to housing programs that we want to do in the city. It’s not just affordable housing; we want to talk about and commit to market-rate housing as well in some of those neighborhoods.”
Much of Woodfin’s optimism seemed to be drawn from the incoming Biden administration, which he said would provide “relief … as opposed to what we’ve experienced from the last few years and months of just them fighting cities. We’re going to have help from the federal government, which is needed in the time of crisis.”
“People have struggled in 2020,” he said. “There’s been a lack of resources. Small business owners have been hurting, hourly workers have been hurting, employers — everybody’s hurting. I think resources will be available for everybody that’s hurting in 2021, so that’s a great place to start. … I think the economy will get better. I think there will be more opportunity. I think that we as a city will be as aggressive as we were in the middle of the pandemic with creating more job opportunities. We will continue to promote and communicate to our residents, ‘These opportunities exist for you, take advantage of it.’”
In the immediate future, Woodfin said he would work with UAB to “ramp up” the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine to Birmingham residents. In the meantime, he called on residents to remain vigilant. “This is not the time to relax. This is not the time to just go out,” he said. “If there was ever a time to be diligent and safe, this is it. This is the moment, right when the vaccine is available, is when I feel that the coronavirus is its most rampant in attacking people.”
Woodfin, already facing two challengers in this year’s re-election bid, ended his speech on a note of collective hope. “Know that progress is achievable, together,” he said.