Category Archives: regional

Remember MAPS?

Jefferson_County_Alabama_Incorporated_and_Unincorporated_areas_Birmingham_Highlighted.svgEarlier this week I shared via my personal social media accounts that it’d been fifteen years since my first visit to Birmingham, AL. Friends posed questions asking me if I’d noticed any changes, leading me to think about what had in that time span.

The more I did, the more I looked at the ability to point to specific accomplishments. I also thought about the issues still facing the metro region as the city begins the march towards its 150th birthday in 2021. Then I remembered a conversation I had during that 1998 visit about a yard sign I’d noticed about something called MAPS.

See, my visit to Birmingham for the tenth anniversary of City Stages in 1998 coincided with the beginning of a massive media blitz associated with the public referendum vote on the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy legislation held on August 4 of that year. I’d try to explain it here, but the link provides a good summary of its goals. The vote was held, the initiative was defeated (except in, incidentally, the city of Birmingham), and life went on as always. Or did it?

When you start to look at the individual components of MAPS and the reasons we’ve been seeing all of this positive press, you begin to realize that time can be a valuable ally for those willing to wait, even for those who still have “The Future Can’t Wait” signs (perhaps playing off the title of a book birthed out of 1963 Birmingham). You also begin to realize just how much of our positive press can be attributed to those projects and what they encouraged.

There are some on a list maintained on BhamWiki of some of those projects listed in order of popularity based on a 1998 poll that seem to be a big reason for our recent success.

The McWane Science Center opened to the public just before the MAPS vote, meaning it was probably held up as an example of what the possibilities were for the region if the plan was approved. The major restoration of Vulcan and his home atop Red Mountain between 1999 and 2004 led to recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the form of a 2006 Preservation Honor Award.

The Birmingham Zoo did see its expansion, adding the Trails of Africa nearly 40 years after the development of a master plan that had suggested such a change. Ruffner Mountain learned this week it is included in the city council’s version of the 2014 budget as more trails are added to its more than 1,000 acres. Railroad Park anchors an emerging spine of a greenway through the heart of greater downtown. We just reported this week about the upcoming addition of the largest dog park in the city at Red Mountain Park in the city’s western area. The Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System hopes to tie it all together and already sees shovels in the ground.

The regional transportation hub is now called an intermodal terminal and it’s set to begin its rise next to the tracks along Morris Avenue late this year while just yesterday both this site and reported on the first major change to the law governing the BJCTA in more than 40 years. They also unveiled new buses on Thursday.

The Alabama Theatre underwent a restoration in 1998 and the community leaders are working feverishly to raise funds to finally begin restoration of the Lyric Theatre across the street. While it may not be ready in time for its 100th anniversary next year, the sight of construction crews working within will be a welcome one for those working across the street to renovate the former home of Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. into residential units.

The swimming and aquatic center got to see a track and field component added to it, resulting in the Birmingham CrossPlex in Five Points West. This is the same facility that landed the city the NCAA Division II diving, swimming, track and field, and wrestling championships this spring. Uptown is the realization of the first phase of the expanded convention center complex and entertainment district (though as Kyle Whitmire reported Thursday for, currently proposed changes to I-20/59 threaten those plans).

The 1% sales tax increase? It’s been implemented in piecemeal throughout the region in recent years (most notably – and controversially – via former mayor Larry Langford’s Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance in 2007, itself a mini-version of MAPS) as the need for the funding source has been realized. It is not the best approach towards raising the capital, but perhaps recent developments like the availability of a state historic tax credit for residential projects will help us see historic homes restored and occupied, leading to more property taxes being collected from a large population.

Yes, we have lost businesses and things haven’t always gone the city’s way. There is still much to be done in our outlying neighborhoods and our city center, but there are signs of progress that don’t necessarily involve waiting for elected officials to lead the way. Parking meters don’t work, sidewalks don’t exist, and lights are not always glowing at night. They must be dealt with, and soon. However, if we only dwell on those things, we’ll miss out on what has happened. Community gardens serving food deserts, signs of reinvestment in neighborhoods some wrote off. There are signs of belief in the future of the city – something I didn’t necessarily see on display in large amounts during that first visit or when I first relocated nine years ago.

Actual maps are a funny thing. They can tell you where you need to go, but they won’t always tell you about obstacles (or websites) in the way.

Most Sundays I write down the word “patience” on a prayer request card at church because I think I don’t have enough. I’d argue sometimes we don’t know what we have until it sneaks up on us – like an All-America City that still has issues to tackle, but one that’s come a long way from where it thought it would be fifteen years ago.

Just imagine if MAPS had passed? Scary, isn’t it? But we’ve still got a road map to follow, so let’s get to it. That is what’s changed – the increase in the belief in the perpetual promise of the city and the region.

André Natta is the stationmaster for

Making tracks towards the future on Southside

1st Avenue Cut, May 16, 2012.A drive along 1st Avenue South heading east contains a significant yet subtle development for those able to stop and take a look. You’ll notice the absence of rails and ties both in the area known as the 1st Avenue Cut between 20th & 24th Sts. and between 28th and 32nd Sts.

A quick look at Birmingham’s GIS map shows most of the property in question being held by CSX. If you can’t tell, I started getting that nagging feeling again (you may have seen what happened earlier this week when that starts), and for some pretty good reasons.

The parcels in question have been identified on several occasions as essential for the “Plan A” expansion of Railroad Park. This would eventually connect the existing park between 14th and 18th Streets South and the property sitting on the northwest corner of 1st Ave. S. and 18th St. that served as the focus of “Prize 2 the Future” contest to Sloss Furnaces.

The native New Yorker who reads way too many online publications from there every morning remembered the transportation company had already agreed in principal to donate the property necessary to complete the city’s High Line back in late 2011. They donated the property developed as the first segment of the park back in 2005. They also have a history of donating property across the country to recreational projects and those that focus on alternative transportation solutions. Attempts were made to hear the reason for the track removal from CSX via email last week; there has still not been a response.

It doesn’t hurt that by removing the track they’ve enabled the city to be able to claim that this project is shovel-ready for development as part of the Jones Valley Corridor. It’s considered an integral part of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System unveiled earlier this year by the Freshwater Land Trust.

This becomes significant when you realize they’re going to announce what projects across the country have been awarded TIGER grants pretty soon – even sooner than some may realize. A bid was submitted for this round to help “jump start” some area projects; it’s the second attempt to secure these federal funds to assist with the greenway initiative.

There’s also the amount of activity currently taking place close to 32nd St. and 1st Ave. S to consider. We’re anxiously awaiting more information about the upcoming groundbreaking for Sloss’ new visitors center, a project many years in the making. Those who driving by IMS‘ properties close to Sloss’ entrance notice Appleseed Workshop signs up and a significant transformation underway to make this section of town resemble the master plan the company unveiled a couple of years ago for the Sloss Business District.

When you consider the demand for the monies awarded is far exceeding the supply, the cumulative effect of all of these things happening at once suddenly gives you hope for our chances of being awarded funds. Even if it’s not awarded, there’s been a shift in momentum for this area of the city – one that’s sure to pick up steam. It’s a perfect opportunity to focus on the concept of accentuating the city positive I talked about on here a couple of years ago.

Nice, isn’t it.

André Natta is the station master for

My modest proposal for City Stages

It’s amazing when you get a chance to look back at what you’ve written on a particular topic over time.

I decided that before I sat down to share my thoughts about City Stages that I’d look back at some earlier pieces both here and over on Dre’s Ramblings. I figured I’d share links to some of the more editorial pieces with you here – just in case:

City Stages is here… well? | My Birmingham, June 13, 2007

City Stages 2007 – some thoughts for the future | My Birmingham, June 18, 2007

Birmingham’s largest block party | My Birmingham, June 20, 2008

Some of the attendees' thoughts on City StagesLast year I said I was looking forward to this year’s festival, assuming that they would build on last year’s critical success with the launch of a social media-influenced marketing campaign.

Then I learned on Tuesday morning that the corporate ticket sales had been budgeted to be close to the same levels as last year (in the midst of an economic recession), leading to the last minute $250,000 request to the City of Birmingham. That, coupled with the virtual nonexistence of money in the Natta household, led me to decide that I will be working on projects and enjoying the air conditioning at Shift WorkSpace this weekend (and hopefully taking in some of the Secret Stages show at Speakeasy on Saturday evening) instead of making the trek down to Linn Park.

I believe George McMillan when he says that there are no more sacred cows in terms of the festival and that he is not sure of its future. How far will they go to secure a future is still to be determined.

The town hall meeting coordinated by Catalyst in November 2006 provided some good ideas for build upon for City Stages in the future, especially when you consider other festivals (even though this is old in terms of reference points).

I’d argue that people need to bring suggestions for real solutions to the table before completely bashing the festival and saying it needs to go. Here’s mine:

City Stages gets moved to the Railroad Reservation Park starting next year. There would be four stages – two at each end of the park. The Cultural Furnace that folks would like to see housed in the current Alabama Power steam plant could be integrated into the planning in later years, including an office for the organization to work out of year round. It would  allow CS to consider approaching Alagasco for the use of their parking lots in the surrounding area as festival space – most likely for things like video game competitions, smaller local stages and an arts and crafts section. You might even be able to scare a spoken word/comedy and jazz stage around out there too.

The festival would be contained in a 12-block area between 14th and 20th Streets, allowing for folks to access downtown Birmingham by car using local streets and taking advantage of a large, open space and a pretty cool view of the city center skyline. No, currently there may not be enough shade for a June festival, but there are no sacred cows anymore. You could even move it to the same weekend as the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in September and make it into a huge event for the region.

We need to actually see what happens once folks get used to this new City Stages and not make another major change just because we are panicking

Now it’s only an idea and of course there would still be issues logistically, but it’s an idea.

I’m not necessarily ready to see City Stages go away and I’d love to hear what some of your ideas are.

You can post them in the comments section below. I’m also willing to invite a few folks over to Shift on Monday evening to share your thoughts about this year’s festival and what it could be in the future. If you’re interested, send an email to or comment below and if enough folks are interested, we’ll announce a time for Monday night.

If you’re going, enjoy the weekend and the music!

André Natta is the managing editor of

Palmer speaks of potential occupational tax benefits for the arts

NOTE: This editorial was submitted by Buddy Palmer, president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham, in advance of Wednesday’s hearing about the occupational tax for Jefferson County.

Wednesday, April 15th at 10 a.m., the Jefferson County Legislative Delegation meets in Montgomery for a public hearing on the reauthorization of the Jefferson County Occupational Tax, which the county desperately needs. Currently, professionals such as lawyers, doctors, cosmetologists, real estate agents pay state fees to conduct business and do not pay an occupational tax as the rest of us working in Jefferson County do.

What we are hoping for is for everyone to be required to pay their fair share of occupational tax. And with this reauthorization of the Occupational Tax comes a rare, much needed opportunity. We would like an amendment within the reauthorization that will dedicate some of those new dollars (estimated to be as much as an additional $18 million annually) to provide partial Funding for the Arts and Cultural, Environmental and Science non-profit entities in Jefferson County.

Should this be approved, the new dollars will be managed transparently through the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham and distributed to entities like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Sloss Furnaces, Red Mountain Theatre, the Alabama Symphony, the Jazz Hall of Fame and many other organizations, both large and small, which have faced shortfalls in funding since the Jefferson County Commission suspended its contribution to the Jefferson County Community Arts fund in 2007.

These earmarked funds through the Occupational Tax will help provide permanent, sustainable funding for groups that enrich our lives and contribute significantly to the economic development of our region. These funds will build outreach programming for school children and enhance the overall quality of life in Jefferson County.

Want to help? Call your representative at 334-242-7600 or senator at 334-242-7800, and tell them you support Public Funding for Arts Culture Environment and Science! Look them up at

Folks, we need real funding for transit


If the $1.7 million in question for BJCTA paratransit service is taken from that which is already in the city’s budget for BJCTA this fiscal year and is not in addition to the amount set aside, our local transit authority would be forced to make reductions to its existing bus service (viewed as underfinanced and underperforming by many).

It’s disappointing to see the city continue to struggle to find ways to maintain a functioning bus service – particularly in light of the business fee increase supported by the business community and passed last December, which according to a several reports, including this one from us last year on November 19, included transit funding.

There still seems to be more name calling than action when it involves mass transit. The issue is of particular importance to me again as I sit in a hospital waiting room in New York City knowing that reliable mass transit continues to make it easy for me to get around my home town without worry.

Recently moving from downtown Birmingham also marks the first time that I did not stick to my personal rule of living within a block of a bus or train station stop. I just knew that my car or my bike was becoming more reliable.

My level of faith in the future of the BJCTA is not completely lost – their new website and the interim executive director provide a glimmer of hope that the system can be fixed, or at least wants to be.

My faith of future funding sources – from both the City of Birmingham and those other cities in the community that need to be providing substantial funding for it – is.

If we couldn’t get it done or at least really get it going when gas was approaching $4/gallon, I’m nervous about whether or not more than a temporary patch can be applied to our transit issue.

While folks already complain about the evening commute along Highway 280, I’m not quite sure folks out there are ready for the types of delays that folks from those cities our civic leaders always compare us to, like Denver, Austin and Atlanta already deal with. Waiting to do something could very well lead us to that point and then it will be too late.

It is especially disturbing considering that it is paratransit that is now involved in this shell game of funding sources.

Making that evening commute on the bus won’t look so bad in the near future – and shouldn’t (if we still have a working system to make that commute on). 

André Natta is the managing editor of The Terminal.

With apologies to Mr. Dylan…

Editor’s note: Today’s my Birmingham guest blogger is Barry Copeland.

Barry Copeland - Bob Farley/f8PhotoWhen Bob Dylan’s famous lament on the nature of hypocrisy first made the charts, those of us who are now called Baby Boomers memorized all the words. Positively 4th Street pretty much laid it all bare and Dylan’s words seemed to capture what we in the 60s thought typified the hypocracy we saw all around us – in the media, in the government, in any institution with authority. What could sum up the youthful, disillusioned attitude of those watershed years better than, “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend. When I was down, you just stood there grinning!”

Those who observe the passing scene on 20th Street in downtown Birmingham today could make an effective case that we’ve just rolled back the clock 40 years. It’s 1968 all over again, and it seems as though everything that has been happening in my town is bad. Not just bad, in fact, it’s awful. It’s almost as if you could pick an issue – any issue – and bet safely that it’ll be the subject of conversation somewhere in some forum in the coming week. The issue could be elected officials, or proposed projects, the actions (or inactions) of any legislative body, our environment, our schools, our businesses, our infrastructure. The list of negative things to cuss and discuss is endless. I think, in fact, that we may be at the point now where an alternative view is not only a pleasant change – it’s becomming essential for the maintenance of our collective regional sanity.

So, with apologies to Mr. Dylan – and consistent with a move up to 20th Street (the most important street in Alabama, I would offer) – here is Vol. 1, No. 1 of Positively 20th Street. And let the emphasis be on the word Positively for that’s what this little blog will be about. What’s good in Birmingham.

I like the idea of the city’s “Believe in Birmingham” web site, and I like what Mayor Langford says on the site. “We can’t expect anyone to believe in us until we believe in ourselves.” Amen! Admittedly my view is limited, but I’m convinced there are many great things happening in Birmingham these days that deserve a forum, and that is the intended purpose of “Positively 20th Street.”

Here’s one such conversation starter, with the promise of more to come in future posts. Do you know that the UAB community is now about the size of the city of Gadsden? Actually, on any given day, UAB now claims approximately 17,300 students and another 18,000 faculty, staff, physicians, etc. Add to that about 786 patients a day, on average, and their families, and you have Gadsden. It’s a very fluid population, but the economic impact is hard to ignore – and we ignore it at our peril. UAB’s economic impact is now about 12-to-1, meaning, In layman’s terms, that for every dollar the state invests in UAB, roughly $12 will be returned into Birmingham and Alabama’s economy. So when the state invests $50 million, as it agreed to do last year, the impact of that investment in our region and state, over time, is something in the neighborhood of $600 million. What’s not to love about that?

UAB – and so much more – is good for Birmingham. And to that point, you may expect more – later.

Barry Copeland is executive vice president of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. Check out his blog over at Positively 20th Street, where this entry was originally posted on April 14. Head on over there and share your comments on this first post (or you can let him know through our comments section).

Let's dream those dreams

Today’s Birmingham News sings the praises of the Railroad Reservation Park’s pending construction (interesting how the name keeps getting shorter depending on where you look). I would go one step further than they did in their description. It is in fact an example not just of what the city center can and will become, but what can happen throughout the city and the region if people show faith in the potential success in a project. Three parks, one currently operating and two beginning to see the light of day, benefited in part thanks to the efforts of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and their belief that projects like these needed to be done and supported.

The organization announced a new initiative during its annual meeting on Thursday evening that would enable more projects like “Birmingham’s Central Park”, Ruffner Mountain Nature Center‘s expansion and Red Mountain Park‘s creation to become reality. The Community Catalyst Fund serves as an opportunity for Birmingham to dream bigger than it ever has before and achieve those dreams for ourselves and future generations.

The possibilities for these unrestricted funds are only as limited as your mind allows it to be. Many projects seem to die a slow death here only because you cannot see past the naysayers. What if we had the ability to seed an arts funding source that could encourage murals, ecoscapes and galleries throughout the region?

What if the money existed to help jump start a facade improvement program that could augment existing dollars for building rehabilitation, enabling a community to put its best face forward to those that did not believe the rumors of its pending rebirth?

What if the money were used to encourage alternative transportation methods in the region, while allowing Birmingham to become more viable for the large manufacturing plants that many seem to think is needed?

What if the money were available to bring even bigger exhibits to an expanded Museum of Art, encouraging a truer sense of collaboration among our existing cultural facilities? Or if resources were made available for more of the metropolitan area’s growing arts community to create and display their work, no matter what it is?

Is it not time to stop pointing the finger at what is wrong and instead roll up our sleeves and ask what needs to be done to make it better?

The News said that much more fund raising lies ahead for the Railroad Reservation Park. A city that once mined for ore should also be mining for ideas as it reaches forward into the 21st century and carves a space out as a leader – one that it has always had among some, but now also in the hearts of those that call it home. City, county, state and federal officials should (and have) been willing to support projects with their access to general funds, but we cannot ask them to lead the way by themselves anymore.

Hopefully when we’re asked to answer the bell, we are ready to provide the energy and the monies necessary to power the engine for the future of The Magic City. The new Community Catalyst Fund is one way to do just that. Check it out and see what you can do to help some more of that magic make some dreams come true.

NOTE: Let us know what your big dream for Birmingham is over on Magic City Question

André Natta is the publisher and managing editor of The Terminal.