Category Archives: leadership

Maybe Larry was on to something…

Larry Langford - acnatta/FlickrIt’s been awhile since I’ve written about former Birmingham mayor Larry Langford. It’s been so long I had to add his name to my spell-check list again. It’s a lot longer than the last time he was mentioned in the press.  This summer we learned he’d been moved to a prison medical facility in Lexington, KY for undisclosed reasons. I for one hope he’s doing well.

Whenever someone brings up Langford’s name, there’s normally some snickering about several of his proposals and their effects on the city and surrounding community. There is none that draws giggling and snark quicker than his attempt to bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

If you approach it on face value, it didn’t make sense at all – at least it shouldn’t have. When it was presented in 2008, I suggested folks consider looking at it as a blueprint to measure his effectiveness as mayor. I got comments and emails from visitors to the site suggesting it was a noble interpretation, but the idea was still unrealistic.

I’ve left the notion alone now for the last 4+ years, thinking I may have missed something. Then, as I sat at my desk towards the end of last year, starting to shift my thoughts towards the city’s efforts to recognize what happened in 1963, it hit me. I’d found a new way to look at Langford’s proposals – one many wouldn’t want to acknowledge or admit to even if pressed. It was still compelling.

Langford’s proposals were his way of trying to get the city ready for 2013… and 2021.

Another look at Langford’s list of ideas

There is an entry dedicated to the list of initiatives proposed by Larry Langford throughout his political career maintained over on Bhamwiki. The collections of suggestions made during his time as mayor is extensive (and exhausting for some), but reviewed through the lens of getting a city ready for its international close-up, it is impressive.

Some, like the proposal to demolish the Birmingham Board of Education headquarters across from Linn Park to allow for redevelopment, sounded crazy, but now it appears as though it’ll happen now. Others, like suggesting we build fountains and plazas in Pratt City, Five Points West and downtown, seemed too far out there.

Now we get to the 2020 Olympics bid.

No, I’m not saying we had a chance, but it goes back to my original point from the June 2008 piece – it was a goal to place in front of the city. It was the ultimate target. It intrigued me as the math began to make sense. The proposal would have to go in during 2008, getting us media attention (which it did). There would have to be significant progress made on the infrastructure by late 2012/early 2013 at the latest, regardless of the situation in which Langford found himself. This would mean the city would be “ready” by 2013 – the moment Birmingham would once again be in the international spotlight for not just one, but two reasons.

It would provide a different angle for visiting journalists and bloggers to take on the city; it becomes less an issue of what we’re commemorating and more of where we are and where the city is going. It would also provide some buzz on which you could build on and realize several significant changes to the city for 2020, when journalists would undoubtedly come back to see if we’d taken advantage of those necessary improvements.

By the way, those improvements would have us ready for the following year, 2021. The significance of that year? It’s the 150th anniversary of the founding of Birmingham, AL.

I’m not asking you to anoint Langford a saint. I’m trying to demonstrate the madness had a method, albeit a haphazard one. It led to several of the things we’ll be celebrating and recognizing this year:

He asked us to do something, even though we didn’t necessarily want to play along. He will go down as a polarizing figure in Birmingham history, but he’ll also have a place in the hearts of some who’ve started to connect the insanity of the dots – as insane as they may be.

He even ended up scoring one of those proposed fountains downtown – over at our new Uptown entertainment district. The first groundbreaking – yeah, he was there, too.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Signing on to the city's comprehensive plan

Comp plan final forum crowdIt was one of those things where you just felt the level of optimism surrounding you (even as some skepticism tried to sneak in from time to time) and got infected by it. There were approximately 250 people gathered at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Saturday morning to learn about the current status of the city’s first comprehensive plan effort since 1961.

Community leaders from across the city shared breakfast and opinions with the consulting team and the plan’s steering committee (of which I am a part). Yes, I focused on community leaders first. There were only four (4) citywide elected officials in attendance out of a possible 19 on Saturday morning at various points; Birmingham mayor William Bell; city councilors Valerie Abbott and Jay Roberson; and Birmingham Board of Education member April Williams.

The current implied timetable for this effort means that we’ll be starting to look at some of the broader issues next year – so long as its adopted before the end of this one. It also means that it could be used as a measurement tool to hold elected officials and our numerous community organizations accountable, also known as an election year issue. This is where I remind you that in the midst of next year’s commemoration of the events of 1963 (by the way, it’s a Flash-based site), we’ll be choosing who we want to have lead the city forward at the beginning of the next 50 years – in the mayor’s office, all nine city council districts, and the Board of Education.

It’s my hope that the comprehensive plan becomes the kind of issue where we’re asking for our elected officials to voice their continued support for it instead of it being used as a political football. Hopefully as more of our elected officials become familiar with the plan, it’ll make it harder for them to do the former (though not impossible).

Signing inWe have a chance to offer comment once the draft is released, though for those of you reading this, clicking through to the plan’s website will also enable you to know what’s been going on. There are opportunities to read through materials at the Birmingham Public Library for those who’ll suggest that they can’t find their way to a computer. There isn’t an excuse to not participate just like there wasn’t an excuse to do so during the holidays despite freezing temperatures and the likelihood of snow.

Most impressive was the number of young people in attendance. Yes, there were young professionals scattered among the various tables, but there was a large contingent from UAB as well as a few area high school students – none of whom were afraid of having their voices heard and not necessarily agreeing with the adults in the room. It reminded me of the group of young people who presented their hopes and dreams for the city during the first public forum last fall. They know what they want to see in their city as it moves forward and of its potential. More than anything else, this plan is about their future and not about our legacy and we owe it to them to be involved and to get it right (and adopted) when the time comes.

You might say that those who attended and those children I’ve mentioned are not like most people in Birmingham; those who see a grand future for Birmingham think they aren’t like most people anyway. I’ve got a feeling they’re wrong though and they exist in greater numbers than most think. The key will be making sure they know their voice still matters and that there are several ways to share their comments.

What do you think?

Andre Natta is The Terminal’s stationmaster.

Assuming great things for Fleming, ONB

David Fleming in North Birmingham, October 2010. acnatta/bhamterminal.comThe first time I met David Fleming, I was sitting across the table from him for about an hour on the tenth floor of Two North Twentieth interviewing for the job that would eventually bring me to Birmingham. I spent most of that time wondering just what this guy thought of this kid from The Bronx living in Savannah, GA who was crazy enough to want to work for his new nonprofit start-up.

A month later, we hustled into the conference room at the Young & Vann Building downtown as the city’s Design Review Committee meeting started – beginning a 2 ½ year working relationship as his first hire for Main Street Birmingham (MSB).

I learned a lot while there and had a lot of fun too. We agreed about what needed to be done more often than not; it was often when it came to what we knew we could actually get away with where we’d often differ. The fact I was able to openly disagree with my boss – at least behind closed doors – was something I was extremely grateful for. I was also thankful for the chance to work for someone who truly loved his hometown and wanted to do right by it – a passion that still influences how I approach this website long after my resignation from MSB to launch it in 2007.

When news of Michael Calvert’s retirement and the resulting search for a new president and CEO of Operation New Birmingham (ONB) became public, a part of me just knew David would apply for the job. He did, and earlier today I learned along with everyone else that he’d been offered and accepted the position – effective November 1.

It’s a big day for the future of the city of Birmingham – or at least it is to me. I believe the ONB board sent a clear signal with this decision – one that suggests they value the importance of small business development as a significant part of the revitalization of the city center. It also suggests that while they may recognize Fleming’s familiarity with how things have been done during his previous tour of duty with ONB, they’re willing to listen to someone who may have ideas about how to tweak some of those policies and procedures to better serve small businesses and grow the residential community – both vital to realizing the hopes of many not just in the central business district but the greater downtown area.

These are assumptions – and David’s favorite reminder to me was “never assume.” The thought of just what could happen if some of those changes that could be made to make ONB more effective were applied to MSB initiatives makes me want to assume the best though – for David and the city he enabled me to move to more than seven years ago.

Waiting to see if some of those assumptions become reality will be the hard part…

André Natta is‘s stationmaster. He served as senior coordinator for Main Street Birmingham from September 2004 until March 2007.

Photo: David Fleming at North Birmingham ecoscape dedication, October 2010 via archive.

What's next YPs?

2007 YP ExpoThis evening, organizers have planned for approximately 1,000 people to pass through the Birmingham Museum of Art to participate in the 3rd annual YP Expo. Approximately 30 young professional organizations and many of their memberships will have the chance to interact with one another and see what everyone else is doing (or learn that an organization that you’ve wanted to start already exists), much in the same way that the folks pictured here at the first one held in 2007 at the Innovation Depot did.

The original idea behind the Expo was to provide a starting point on two different fronts:

  • the opportunity for newcomers and long time residents of metro Birmingham to learn more about the existing organizations
  • to give the existing organizations a chance to talk with each other and determine ways that they can work together

The question posed by the press release for this year’s event is the right one, “What’s next?”

Introducing young professionals to the existence of these organizations is an important first step, though it is equally as important to make our established leadership aware of the presence of these energetic people in our community. They are ambassadors to the outside world about the potential and the successes that exist in Birmingham. Connecting them to each other is essential; not just for folks attempting to pad their resume with the now necessary community outreach opportunities, but for those that want to know that when they speak of the good that is happening in Birmingham, it is not the only voice in the forest doing so.

When I recently wrote about brain drain, it was more to see if folks thought it existed (I think it’s become more of a trickle myself). What happens after the sign up lists are entered into the databases and the business card swapping ends tonight is the key for those that think that the phenomenon does exist.

The offline interaction and tangibles that come from shaking hands with someone who is as passionate as you are about the future of The Magic City will encourage most to move any obstacle that stands before them. It will be interesting this year to see how many of these organizations choose to work together on projects, pooling resources and talent to help move Birmingham forward the way that they want to see it happen.

I’ll unfortunately show up late tonight and leave early; heading home to play in the dirt in front of the house in advance of a trip out of town tomorrow. I’m hoping that the seeds planted tonight among Birmingham’s rising class of young professionals grow pretty strong… and fast.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Photo: 2007 YP Expo. André Natta/