If we don’t build it, they will come


Attention Conservation Notice: This is about local politics in Birmingham, Alabama, but also about sustainability throughout North America.

Now that the new city council is seated, it’s high time to revisit The Dome, as we like to call it. Despite the strong case against expansion of the city’s convention complex, there is political momentum in favor of floating the bonds and summoning the bulldozers. Mayor Larry Langford actively promotes the project with pep rally techniques (banners, rallies, T-shirts) that evoke his campaign slogan, “Let’s do something!”

Many people, probably including a majority of Birmingham municipal voters, support the dome in the faith that large public works bring prosperity to a community, and that Birmingham has been too slow to perform such works. And when it comes to a project like providing reliable public transit, or passable school buildings, they are absolutely correct. Birmingham has buses that routinely break down or lack air conditioning, and its school buildings often leak, flood, or stink. Investing in projects that solved these problems would bring nothing but benefits.

But not all public works are created equal. The dome project would commit the city to invest heavily to try to compete in an over-supplied market for convention space — a market that has been steadily shrinking as businesses and large organizations cut back on air travel and turn to new networking and teleconferencing tools instead. In this environment, Birmingham’s planned dome cannot hope to compete with established facilities with a track record and plenty of empty space.

Of course, no one supports the dome for the purpose of running down Birmingham’s economy and future prospects. Some, including the professional conventioneers who run our BJCC, support the project because it’s the conventional path to achievement and recognition in their field. No matter how it turns out in the long run, they will be admired by their peers for bringing off a sizable facilities expansion.

Even dome supporters concede that the city can expect to lose money on this deal. Their fallback position is to claim that nevertheless the city as a whole will benefit from new development and expanded employment. But how will a cavernous convention hall spur the economy by standing empty most of the time? Dome supporters are reluctant to forecast how many weeks per year the dome will be fully occupied. Fewer than five weeks? Three weeks? Five days?

What if no one comes at all? This is not an improbable outcome. As large spaces go begging in Atlanta, Austin, and dozens of other cities, why should the big conventions look at Birmingham, with its broken public transit system that cannot even get visitors from the airport to the convention hotels?

Birmingham styles itself the “Magic City,” but that’s no excuse for magical thinking about our future. There is no magic in the convention business, and wishing will not make the dome a success. Our mayor likes to quote scripture, so I’ll remind him of Paul’s reflection: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Cor. 3:11

I don’t suppose he’ll quote that at the next council meeting.

Birmingham’s green future

There is a positive side to this issue: In the greener economy of the immediate future, Birmingham’s relatively small convention space may very well have an advantage over the giants we’ve been so anxious to emulate. There is already strong evidence that the city is finding its niche as a green convention space.

Two media companies that promote sustainable building practices chose Birmingham for their July 2009 Green Building Focus Conference and Expo. What’s more, the conference is committed to at least two more annual meetings in Birmingham, and the conference planning organization is based here — suggesting an indefinite tenure at the BJCC, provided that we don’t screw up.

A follow-up gathering in September produced a statement of sustainable building principles called the Birmingham Charter. Besides promoting the city in its title, this document invites advocates for sustainable design, green manufacturing, and similar initiatives to help “revitalize Birmingham in a way that communities worldwide can use as a model.”

Imagine: Birmingham, Alabama, as a global center for green design. To learn more, be at the “Sustainability Salon” on Wednesday, Oct. 21, at the Green Resource Center, 2564 18th St. South in Homewood. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the program runs from 6:30 to 8:00.

The city council has taken the easy step of unanimously endorsing this initiative. Good for them. From this point, all that’s really necessary is for them to refrain from doing harm.

Launching an old-fashioned civic center expansion to serve a glutted, shrinking, petroleum-fed market — and going into debt to do so — would be a notable way to do harm. The BJCC is already prepared for a future of specialized conferences, regional gatherings, concerts, and shows. It is on course to become a national destination for green events — if we don’t screw up.

Let’s “do something” by taking responsibility for what we have. For a start, Birmingham needs a bus system that just works, and schools that newcomers will send their children to without misgivings. To get there, we need city leaders who act as adults with a vision of a better future — not as overgrown children with magical dreams.

Postscript: Langford’s bribery trial

This may seem like a cheap shot, but it is not intended that way. As Mayor Langford faces federal prosecution next week, it would certainly be a good time for him and his peers to “put away childish things.” His conduct could have serious implications for the city he leads, and for its citizens. Langford is innocent until proven guilty, but with two cronies and a fellow former county commissioner already pleading guilty and agreeing to testify against him, the prosecution’s case is formidable. I’ve worried before that if Langford winds up in jail, he won’t be able to conceive of how it happened. My prayer is that, whatever happens, our mayor does not try to punish the city for his own disillusionment. He has enough charisma to give considerable scope to his rage, if he so chose. And he is not known for hearing advice from his friends — at least not on any topic besides shopping and gambling.

P.P.S. The Birmingham Charter and green design

I hope nobody is too offended that I’ve used the word “green” without defining it. It seems clear that the word is here to stay, and its definition will remain as mutable as, say, “democracy” or “freedom.”

I’m using “green” to label scientific research and planning for a more sustainable economy — less needy and greedy, and more efficient, adaptable, and inventive. I’m less interested in “green” as a marketing keyword, political nostrum, or corporate image.

Whatever you think about global warming, or Al Gore, it’s plain that we can’t continue to live like pioneers at the edge of an inexhaustible wilderness. There’s nowhere left to move on to, and no clear streams left for our hogs and cattle to muddy. The whole world has become “back East.” We have to face it.

Anyway, here are some Birmingham-centered links on green matters:

One thought on “If we don’t build it, they will come

  1. The case over whether to Dome or Not to Dome is related to the lottery debate we had about a decade back. Lotteries have proven to be no one’s panacea and have proven to be insufficient in states that enacted them. What is really needed is a forward-thinking, Progressive solution, but Birmingham has proven itself to be resistant to anything of that nature. I still believe that investing the money in public transportation would more than justify the cost, but it’s not something that can produce instant results. When the Metro system was enacted here in DC, it took a decade or more for older areas to gentrify, but ridership was immediate and continues to grow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s