Category Archives: Alabama

Free the Hops and the Gourmet Beer Bills

UPDATE: 5.14.2009 – This afternoon, the Alabama State Senate passed HB 373 – The Free the Hops bill. Click here for more info.

The following piece was written and submitted by current Free the Hops president Stuart Carter. Both bills mentioned in the piece are scheduled to go before the state House tomorrow.

Free the Hops, for those of you who have never heard of us, is a grassroots pressure group trying to reform the beer law in Alabama.

We have two bills in front of the Alabama House and Senate (HB196 and SB116) which will change the definition of “beer” to allow up to 13.9% ABV beers instead of the current maximum of 6% ABV. This will allow a huge number of previously unknown beers into the state, but will not change any of those currently sold here – so don’t worry about your favorites! We also have a bill in front of the Senate to reform home brewing (SB355).

Why does the beer law need to be reformed? Surely there are enough beers already?”

This is a very common question. Let me phrase the question this way: “Why do you want a Toyota? Surely there are enough Fords for sale?”

To add to the absurdity of the position regarding beer sales in Alabama, you can buy a 169 oz. Heineken mini-keg in a grocery store, and you can buy pure grain alcohol at 95% ABV in a store owned and operated by the state of Alabama – but you can’t buy any beer made by Trappist monks, nor can you buy Sweetwater IPA.

“Wait a minute!” you cry. “I used to drink Sweetwater IPA! It just hasn’t been on the shelves for a while!” That is because the state of Alabama discovered that Sweetwater had changed the recipe so that it now has an ABV of 6.5%, making it illegal to even possess a bottle of this beer in Alabama.

The gourmet beer bills and misinformation

The Gourmet Beer Bills are one of the key steps towards freeing the hops. By allowing higher alcohol levels, these bills open up a world of flavors and business opportunities. The kind of person who is interested in these gourmet beers is the kind of person who would gravitate to the downtown Birmingham business and entertainment district – exactly the kind of person the city wants in to the downtown area! A conservative estimate would put the current losses to the metropolitan Birmingham area at in excess of $250,000 a year in sales alone.

47 states currently allow these higher alcohol beers to be sold. There is no link between higher alcohol beers and higher rates of either drunk-driving or underage drinking. In fact, according to Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD), Alabama is in the worst half of the drunk-driving rates, along with Mississippi and West Virginia, who are the other two states with these restrictions!

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Editorial: Birmingham votes to withdraw from SWMA

Editor’s note: The following letter was submitted to by Nelson Brooke, Riverkeeeper and executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper. It was originally published on their website. Click here to view it there. – ACN.

On Tuesday the Birmingham City Council voted to withdraw from the Storm Water Management Authority (SWMA)  The council has until October to decide whether or not to rejoin SWMA.  It will cost the city more to go it alone than through participation in SWMA’s regional program.  Mayor Kincaid’s administration considered withdrawing, but concluded such a move wasn’t in the city’s best interest.   Jefferson County withdrew only to rejoin after realizing they made a bad decision.

The city council is currently considering a Malcolm Pirnie proposal to do the work for the city.  Going it alone means more comprehensive and stringent permit requirements for the city, which includes having to test many more sites.  I encourage you to contact the city council and Mayor Langford [at] to let them know you do not support their withdrawal.  SWMA is doing a good job and there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

At the council meeting on Tuesday both Councilman Joel Montgomery and Mayor Langford said SWMA was not out there monitoring streams for pollution.  What do they think SWMA does?  I can personally attest to the fact that SWMA inspectors are very active in monitoring Birmingham’s streams.  The two local authorities in charge of enforcing pollution found by SWMA and Black Warrior Riverkeeper are Birmingham’s own engineering department and the state Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).  They are not doing their job of keeping pollution from entering area streams.  Why would one think a consulting firm hired by the city would do a better job than an already established county agency?

Let’s not be fooled here.  Mayor Langford and some of the city council are paving the way for relaxed restrictions on and regulation of those who make money by putting their pollution burden on the public.  A lot of powerful interests ( i.e. those who support BARD – see article below for more info) externalize their costs on the greater public by refusing to pay for necessary pollution controls.  The result for us is polluted water resources.  The result for them is fatter pockets.  Without SWMA, the fox will be guarding the hen house in Jefferson County and pollution will continue unabated just like it always has.  Rest assured, ADEM is a toothless fox.

Transit's getting necessary

Most people (including myself) are married to their automobiles here in Birmingham. We are a city that loves their cars, even though a major reason for the growth of the city during its boom period was the development of communities along our extensive streetcar system.

If our mayor gets his way (and based on yesterday’s public meetings he may) you’ll soon be wondering if your love of your car is as important as your love for balancing that checkbook.

There are many that believe that no one ever rides the bus. Well, if you get in your car at 7:30 a.m. and you drive 30-45 minutes to work in traffic to come into the city center then that would be the case, because by that time most of the folks that use what’s currently available to them have already passed through our downtown or they’re waiting at the station on Morris Avenue to continue their trip. For those that wonder how I know this to be true – the first place that I lived in Birmingham was at the corner of 1st Avenue & 22nd Street North, a location that sees many of the buses that constitute the current MAX fleet.

I never saw a crowd on them at 7 or 8, but if I was attempting to work out on an elliptical right next to the window at 6 a.m., there would be plenty of full buses and people from all over the county trying to get from point A to point B passing by my window.

Many who currently view the buses as a problem are generally “viewing” it as a spectator and not as a participant. I’ve only used our current bus system three times – including my visits to the city since 1998. It does make more sense to drive, though as a result, we’re all looking in at the problem without necessarily understanding all of the nuances. A change in perspective, as mentioned yesterday, would possibly give us a better understanding of what it could mean to overhaul how transit is done in the city of Birmingham.

Yours truly decided to crunch some numbers on the conservative side of things to look at just how much savings we’d see if we gave up our cars for a transit filled life:

We’ll assume that gas is at $3.50 for regular for demonstration purposes and that our tank can hold 15 gallons. We’re also assuming one stop at a gas station per week. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll consider a car fully covered with monthly charges being about $85. We’ll also assume that we’re only taking the car in four times a year for an oil change (which is a lot, but we’re not considering unexpected costs which add up to be much more than what the totals will show. We’re also not considering car payments – a fact of life for many of us.

As far a transit goes, we’ll assume that the new authority created to run our transit system uses a daily rate of $1.25 for rides that include transfers. As a result, we’ll also run the numbers on the current MAX monthly pass rate of $44:

Method of transportation
Total cost for one year to driver/passenger
Personal auto   $3,810  
Mass transit (pay per trip – weekdays only)   $1,300  
Mass transit (monthly pass)   $528  

The cost benefit savings alone will not be enough to entice riders to trust in their bus system and few families can ever completely give up their cars here in Birmingham. Even now while I do not drive nearly as much as I did before, I am still dependent on my car for nights and weekends.

An overhaul of the way routes are run will also need to be considered. We currently operate most of our buses on what could be considered a spoke system. This means that every rider that needs to make a transfer in downtown and they need to be on a bus way earlier than is necessary for the amount of land covered by our current system.

Perhaps running a system that is based on what is found in an Atlanta, Georgia or an Ottawa, Ontario (and there’s is a mainly bus-built system) is more likely to see the results that most think of when they envision mass transit. Our current downtown bus (soon to be intermodal) station would still remain a hub, though it would now be based on actually being a crossing point for the system and not the center of its spoke-like system. It would allow for buses to service more of the community and allow those that do not necessarily need to come downtown from traveling out of the way of their final destination. Based on the mayor’s recent comments, it would also be a point where the existing system could connect with the city’s system.

There are many that would comment about on-time reliability, consistency and overall trust in the infrastructure of a system before they use it. They’d also want something flashier since they may not see bus rapid transit or other things like that as “sexy enough” for Birmingham. If it gets them to think about carpooling or something else, then we’re still accomplishing the goal. It may also get us to talk to each other more, and that could be the best thing to come out of it.

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.

A change in perspective is in order

I started out today writing an editorial about transit and how people’s perspectives are skewed based on how they’re looking at an issue – in particular, transit. After attending this morning’s city council meeting, I’m saving that one for tomorrow; now I want to explore the issue of perspective on a different scale.

I’m a resident of Birmingham’s Central City neighborhood – been one since my arrival in Birmingham a little over three years ago. This morning I can honestly say that I’d never seen those residents any happier. They’d brought an issue before the City Council (the Screening Room). About half-way through the public comments, Mayor Langford asked to speak. He said that he was willing to send a tactical force unit out and have it sit right in front of the business until a decision had been reached. After the council unanimously approved revoking their business license, the mayor said that he’d be willing to sign the order as soon as this afternoon. He also spoke to the group assembled in the chambers, but also geared his comments to those that would be watching the meeting as it was being rebroadcast. He asked people to take note of what had just happened – that people wanted to take back their city and that once the elected officials were notified, the issue could be addressed. People from outside would have loved to say that nothing was going to happen. Those 20+ residents that appeared in chambers this morning would have a different perspective this afternoon.

Langford loves to say that no one should be able to tell someone what they should not be able to accomplish (forgive me mayor as I did not take great notes during the session today, I was enjoying the WiFi access from council chambers). Nowhere is that more evident than with regards to the pending increase in taxes and business licenses. While I believe that we should make one more effort to work regionally, a conversation with one of my best friends reminded me of a philosophy that’s worked in the past.

There is a need to improve the perception of the city. Whether we like it or not, that change in perception is going to cost money. The state of Alabama is not known for its support of taxes, but guess what – because we play some of the lowest taxes in the country, it’s hard for us to compare ourselves to other cities since their tax base, in particular their property taxes, are in an entirely different league. We have expectations for our city that carry price tags that are quite exorbitant. It would be like wanting the amenities associated with a Ritz Carlton at a Motel 6 price. Many of our perceptions come from the driver’s or passenger seat of a car doing 60 MPH (OK, maybe a little faster) on our area’s highways. How often do you spend your time outside – truly outside? Away from a car, your home, a restaurant, etc.? I’m guessing it would probably be somewhere around 1 hour a day. Maybe if we spent our time outside and took a look at things from a different perspective, we’d see what could happen…

I’m not sure if the Chamber’s executive committee did the right or wrong thing with regards to wanting to see things happen. While potential increases would affect few of them, their motivation was pure frustration about the perception of the city from outsiders and visions of what their city could look like if all of the items identified in the mayor’s plan are implemented. They’ve wanted to see something happen for a long time. The need for change and progress is enough to take a chance – to do something.

People want to be proud of this city. The majority of folks are very proud of this city. The time may finally be here to make sure that everyone else knows how proud we are, or to convert a few more folks over for the cause.

Anyone who says they’re doing more than speculating about the effects of these increases is lying. I will say that looking at 15-20% of the costs of driving one of the cars that your two-car household and having that money available to offset the increased sale taxes may be a utopian pipe dream, but it’s giving folks some hope and optimism – maybe even a change in perspective.

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.

A great idea leads to some questions about our future

I was standing in line and overheard a conversation between a man that was part of a group of five behind me and the woman that was positioned the entrance to the Pompeii exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art. I was already pleasantly surprised about 20 minutes earlier when we encountered the long line as we purchased tickets to the exhibit. I was surprised again when I heard the woman say that 1,562 people had entered the exhibit as of 3:45 p.m. that afternoon. Based on a pure guesstimate, it’d be safe to say that more than 1600 people went through the exhibit the day after Thanksgiving.

This is only a taste of what could happen if the museum were to be allowed to expand onto the property currently occupied by the Boutwell Auditorium. Our newly elected mayor has announced publicly that he would like to transfer or sell the building to museum for the purpose of allowing them to expand. There are some that would ask why the Southeast’s largest public museum needs to be enlarged. An easy answer is the fact that the current facility only allows for no more than ¼ of the museum’s collection to be on display at any one time. An expanded facility would allow for more of the collection to be on display, adding to the potential of larger traveling exhibits to be available to the people of Alabama and the surrounding region. Those types of exhibits serve as reasons for the development of additional hotel rooms, restaurants and retail businesses in our central business district (probably a better answer), adding to our economy, whether or not a tax or business license increase were to happen.

The museum’s riding high right now with two well-received exhibits as they finish an incredible year. The ability to announce this potential for expansion right now would no doubt also allow the issue of arts funding to stay in the front of many residents’ minds as our Cultural Alliance enters an unknown territory – a year without financial support from the Jefferson County Commission.

Holiday weekends aside, the fact that the museum has seen consistent crowds during the Pompeii and Folk Art exhibits speak to the importance of the arts to Jefferson County in general and Birmingham in particular.

Two questions to consider: First – Does the building really need to come down? That is a question that is up for debate. A simple answer is no; while many may believe that the Boutwell is not an acoustically pleasing venue for concerts and events, the shell could be maintained and the interior gutted for the purposes of serving as a museum/gallery. It would be the least expensive option and it would allow the city to maintain a piece of its urban fabric. A clean slate created by demolition would provide the opportunity to create a world-class edition to a world-class museum, providing yet another reason to visit, much in the same way that Moshe Safdie‘s Jepson Center for the Arts provides an artistic work unto itself at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. Something to think about…

The other question that’s seems to be becoming the norm in Birmingham is “How are we going to pay for it?” As optimistic as I am for a city that I choose to live in, I am increasingly nervous about how we’re going to move forward alone. Talk of regional cooperation that emerged from this year’s BIG Trip to Denver seems to have disappeared in favor of the “this is mine, that’s yours” mentality that existed before. Our current per capita income was $15,600 (you can also take a look at the numbers listed in our profile in Money’s 2006 Best Places to Live report). We are a regional hub that can set the example of what can happen if we work together. It will take the region to support the numerous construction projects that are about to take place within our city limits as well as a revamped mass transportation network. There will be a time in the near future where folks over the mountain will end up needing to ride that bus over to the museum thanks to $4/gallon gasoline prices.

Before we set out on our own and become even more isolationist than we’ve been already been, let’s see if we can build on what appeared to be a sincere attempt to solve regional problems together. Regionalism will eventually happen; it must for the city to grow and reach its potential. It would just be a shame to not embrace it and suffer the consequences of doing stuff as a tiny kingdom before joining the party.

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.

The First 100: Council wants to weigh public opinion; excellent!

Mayor Langford stated during his campaign that he had a reputation of being a bull in the china shop. Many would view that as his desire to move his city forward after sitting on the sidelines for so long. However it appears that the bull is about to meet his match in the form of the Birmingham City Council.

While the major story over the weekend was the fact that the Council members did not think that the mayor’s revitalization plan would be passed on his timetable, the bigger story would have been if the Council had decided that they would pass it without bringing the issue before the people that elected them into office two years ago.

The mayor can claim a mandate from his election – there is no questioning that; the issue is that this council has set a precedent of involving the public in its decision making and attempting to make the happenings in City Hall much more transparent than it has been in the past.

Council President Smitherman has prided herself on making sure that the public has input involving any plans that come before the sitting council. Despite episodes from some members that can be considered grandstanding for the cameras, the other councilors share her desire to bring things to light and engage in a dialogue.

The public must let the elected officials know what they would like to see happen as this public debate will be settled by elected officials in a public forum. Some of the comments that have appeared online have some thinking that this will make or break the city. While it’s definitely a fork in the road for the city, it will certainly set the tone for what’s to come during at least the next two years. The Perpetual Promise has been here and will remain so long as there are people that wish the best for the region.

There is one thing that is interesting to look at as this dialogue begins. There are people that will drive outside of the city limits to purchase items that could be purchased within, claiming that the lower cost is the reason for the need to drive long distances, many times 15-20 minutes. Some of these folks are willing to drive 1 – 2 hours away to “save” money. Are people willing to continue driving outside of the city for goods and services if gas prices continue to rise? Are they willing to speak with their wallets that some of these businesses need to locate closer to home so that our environment and economy in fact benefit? Some may believe that we have become too attached to the automobile to think that anything will pry us away from them and the independence that they represent. $4 may be the magic bullet that gets us to start thinking; some folks thought it would be $3 though.
The taxes already being paid in the form of gas taxes do not have residents complaining. The fact is that the easiest way for our state governments to raise the capital needed is through imposing higher sales tax that many would argue is regressive. The problem is that the best way to increase government revenues would be through doing something like raising area property taxes – something that people are not as quick to agree with. Of course the best way to fix this is by making the necessary changes to our state constitution (but that’s the topic of another post).

The crazy thing is that the success of this proposed 6-year 1¢ tax is based on a leap of faith by both the city’s citizens and the City Council in the plans of our mayor. It is also a leap of faith in ourselves, saying that we’re willing to take a hit for just a little longer in order to see a city that we constantly dream about. That may sound all pretty and idealistic, but the real question is can we afford to do it or can we afford not to? And that question is meant to be asked in all of the ways that you think it is…

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.

The spotlight's on education

With comments about a domed stadium, urban revitalization and other things, concern about our local educational system is rampant and dominating everything else, especially after word that the state wants the ctiy’s board of education to shut down 20 schools. There will be many that ask whether or not the closings need to happen, pointing to the same heartstrings that seem to control a great deal of the decision making that occurs in our region. There are those that do not want to see things to change; they like the way that things were. Unfortunately, we will only see the Birmingham that we want to exist if we allow ourselves to let go of certain “rules,” including those that keep us pining for the past while preventing us from reaching out for a new standard.

There are many that question whether or not Mayor Langford’s plans for a laptop in every school-age child is a good one. They say that there are more pressing issues that should be solved. It is an idea, and if nothing else it is something that will force the conversation about what needs to be done with not just our school system, but several suffering systems throughout the country, into the limelight (which is where it truly needs to be). It seems to be doing the job right now.

The focus of the forums, blogs and websites in recent weeks is the idea that a program for that was aimed at third-world countries will be tried in Birmingham. If we cannot help our own children, it makes us look just a little hypocritical to want to help others while turning a blind eye to our own problems.

The bigger issue is that the topic of education is one that people love to point to as one of great concern, but very few are willing to really make very hard decisions about what needs to be done for the good of the children and the city. The issue definitely ranked high among young professionals in our poll from earlier this month. A solution that many have looked to often is running to the next town over, not realizing that the problems will eventually follow them, if not in a different form. An overcrowded school is just as detrimental to a child’s educational future as a school that is not adequately funded. The problem continues to be one of our own making.

While Birmingham’ declining population has led to the need for these schools to be closed down, that does not mean that we need to lose the schools. If we can’t afford to run them and provide a quality education for our children, then we need can always reduce the financial strain by closing them and focusing on larger student populations with excellent resources. The closings may also allow us to renovate those “closed” schools during this period preparing them for a return to use later on, though on a much slower schedule than would have been necessary before.

The eternal optimist in me believes that if we’re successful in doing what needs to be done with those schools that are left open after this round of closings, that we’ll need to re-open those other schools. The immediate desire to sell them off or tear them down for new development opportunities will remove the ease at which the problem that we all want to see occur, an overcrowding problem, can and would be easily solved in the coming years in Birmingham than how it must be addressed with each shovel that must be turned in the ground of our surrounding neighbors.

The issue of laptop distribution is one that I think may serve a greater good. If all of the students have access to a laptop, they have a key to knowledge that is undoubtedly beneficial to our city and region. They may be willing to share ideas with each other and, with proper supervision, with others outside of our immediate area.  It’s also something that’s a bit selfish as the more people with access to a laptop, the more that become more comfortable with the notion of sharing information online and eventually carrying that conversation into action through Jones Valley and over the mountain. It’s a long term benefit to a long term solution to a long term problem.

What are your thoughts about the future of education in our region and what can be done to help it improve? Do you believe in the plan proposed by Mayor Langford?

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal. To submit letters in response to this commentary or to contact for general information, use any of the methods listed on our contact page.