WBHM’s “On The Line” Talk Show Tackles Uneven Birmingham Revival

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WBHM’s live call-in show “On The Line” tackled complex and often heated issues that come with Birmingham’s economic revitalization. Below are highlights followed by guest bios.

Teamwork, Transportation, and the Big Picture

“There are inklings of revitalization [all around],” said Birmingham City Councilman Steven Hoyt. “And [many examples] can be attributed to public funds and private funds. But we have to have more, including in the western part of town … so we too can experience the renaissance that’s taking place Downtown … Railroad Park was great synergy for Downtown. I’m proud to have helped shape that.”

“We’re going to have to tie in improved transportation,” Hoyt added. “It’s about quality of life, getting people to and from.”

The 99 Neighborhoods, Crime, and City Money

“I have yet to see a platform so the neighborhoods can effectively be at the table when decisions are made,” said Scott Douglas, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. He recalled a “bottom-up neighborhood effort” in the 1990s that raised money through a bond issue, money that went to neighborhood infrastructure like sidewalks and street lights. He says it worked “because the neighborhoods were invested.”

Councilman Hoyt added, “Our city is too dark. I like to see the person, see what color the car is.” He thanked Mayor William Bell and his fellow councilors for their efforts to improve the city’s lighting. “If you light it up, the criminals disappear.”

Speaking of those types of improvements, “Upcoming budgets will reflect neighborhoods like you’ve never seen before,” Hoyt added. “We’re attuned to the ills that beset the neighborhoods.”

Caller Arnold from Birmingham said, “Homeowners have to speak up and project what they want to see in their neighborhoods. We have to begin a dialogue amongst ourselves as neighbors … Things have to start that way, from the ground up, instead of from the top down … We start sowing seeds in that way, getting involved, knowing that we have a role to play, man, we can be effective.”

Brian Wolfe, Director of Development for Corporate Realty Development, said, “As developers, we’re [often] required to meet with the neighborhoods, and we like to even when we’re not. We’re dealing with stakeholders … and we want to make sure we’re a good neighbor just like they are.”

Scott Douglas chimed in, “The best developments happen when people participate from the bottom up.” He mentioned Sandy Vista in Ensley as an example.”Do a survey so everyone can buy into it. Neighbor by neighbor, the conversation has to be ongoing.”

But he also favors using existing organizations: “People say, ‘help me start a ministry or a nonprofit.’ I say ‘join one.'”

Birmingham at the Core

In response to a caller who asked how revitalization in Birmingham might affect surrounding areas, Councilman Hoyt said, “A healthy city center can’t help but impact them … People come to Birmingham to work …  If Birmingham does well, other municipalities in Jefferson County do well. Or even two counties away. There’s a tremendous impact. It’s prudent that we continue to create opportunity in the city center.” He added that he thought the airport — particularly with potential future international flights — is a huge “drawing card” and “economic engine.”

Planning and Reverse-Flight

Caller Lindsay, who works with homeless people, pointed out that the Park Place, a federally funded housing redevelopment downtown, is in a food desert and a mile and a half from the nearest bus line.

Caller Doug from Vestavia Hills asked about the prospects for development of more single-family homes near the city center. Developer Brian Wolfe responded, “Condo used to be a dirty word … But we’re starting to see a lot of calls from empty-nesters wanting to come back down and be part of renaissance, but own something, not rent, by Railroad Park.”

Unavoidable Racial History and the Importance of Schools

On “gentrifying” areas, Scott Douglas pointed out, “Before they ‘used to be black,’ they ‘used to be white’ first. Economic segregation has replaced racial segregation, but it looks just the same.” Perhaps compounding the problem, he says, “Monies from Congress have shrunk. Things we could do in 1985 we can’t do now.”

Hoyt added, “HUD is primarily trying to get out of public housing business. [There’s a] thrust behind mixed development — call it what it is, gentrification … Higher property values, but they become safer communities. [We need to] balance it all out. An aggressive [housing] program from the city helps to balance that out.”

Caller Nina asked whether there are efforts to track displacement of Birmingham residents, and said, “Revitalized places are segregated — still not a lot of mixing. Bars, stores, farmers markets.”

Hoyt responded that, at least with public housing, federal regulations require tracking. He added, “Sometimes it’s about choice. The common denominator is, where does my child go to school? No matter whether they’re poor, uneducated, black or white, even homeless, they want to know, what school is my kid going to? [Schools are] a way to come up. Even though they didn’t have an education, they want their kids to have one.”

He went on: “We need to be intentional with what we do on racial and economic parity. Children are missing intellectual and cultural exchanges. The world is very diverse … Our schools are more segregated than they’ve even been … We have very few white children in [Birmingham City Schools]. BCS is doing well … but what I see is that we’re missing out because we don’t have that exchange. When will a child from Mountain Brook go to Parker and Parker to Mountain Brook?”

But Brian Wolfe said Railroad Park is a “Great melting pot. Regions Field too. [The area is] gentrifying, but also bringing people together.”

More on our panelists:

Scott Douglas, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. Douglas heads GBM, a multi-faith, multi-racial, multi-ethnic organization providing emergency services to families in economic crisis. GBM works with congregations and low-income residents to seek positive change through challenging systemic inequities and building power for marginalized communities through participatory civic engagement. Douglas has lived in Birmingham since 1976. He served under the leadership of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Anne Braden as Executive Director of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice from 1984 to 1989.

Steven W. Hoyt, Birmingham City Councilman. Hoyt represents District 8 and is the Birmingham City Council’s President Pro Tempore. Councilor Hoyt has worked for more than 20 years for the community. First elected to the Birmingham City Council in 2005, Hoyt is now serving his third term. Hoyt is credited him with assisting in the development of various multimillion-dollar projects in District 8 and across Birmingham. Hoyt is chairman of the Public Safety, Transportation Committee, and a member of the Administration/Technology Committee and the Public Improvements and Beautification/Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Committees.

Brian Wolfe, Director of Development for Corporate Realty Development. Wolfe is responsible for implementing new projects and managing the development process for Corporate Realty Development’s future projects. He focuses on deal structure, public/private partnerships, project budgets, schedules, and financial and social returns. In addition, Wolfe is responsible for building and maintaining relationships with investment partners, governmental leaders, lenders, and consultants. He serves on the team that establishes and maintains company mission, vision, goals and objectives, planning charitable contributions as well as planning and implementing community and disadvantaged business growth initiatives.

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