Birmingham City Councilor Maxine Parker invited a whole passel of elected officials to the Birmingham Museum of Art this morning to talk about, ostensibly, alternative options for redevelopment of the former Carraway Methodist Medical Center. Her invitation also made its way into the hands of local community residents and businesspeople, so she ended up with quite a crowd jammed into a very small room.
I heard this morning…
…that the meeting was originally scheduled when there was still a chance that Bryce Hospital would move into the Carraway facility, prior to the state mental health board’s decision to sell the current Bryce Hospital to the University of Alabama and build a new facility in Tuscaloosa. That makes sense, as the printed presentation we received still had “Bryce Hospital” photoshopped onto the Carraway building. The room was set up for a PowerPoint presentation based on the printed materials, but no one actually used either resource.
The meeting opened with prayer (Christian-centric, of course) given by City Councilor Johnathan Austin. He was followed by acting Birmingham Mayor Roderick Royal, Fultondale Mayor Jim Lowery, Rep. John Rogers, Sen. Linda Coleman, and Jefferson County Commissioner (and Birmingham mayoral candidate) William Bell. Each of them spoke about the importance of working together in a spirit of regional cooperation to bring something positive to the people of Jefferson County. Rogers in particular noted the need to present a united front to the Legislature — our ridiculous 1901 Constitution virtually guarantees the need for legislative approval for local economic development efforts.
Here’s the problem: while everyone spoke of unity, no one offered a concrete proposal around which to rally. Rogers wants to bring in some new (unspecified) industry to help the Birmingham-Jefferson County area keep up with other parts of the state. He also mentioned what he considered underhanded dealings by Rep. Phil Poole and developer Stan Pate to keep Bryce in Tuscaloosa. The new facility has an $82 million price tag, $22 million of which will be financed by economic development bonds, and, according to Rogers and Sen. Scott Beason, those funds are supposed to be reserved for new industry. Bell said he’s been in discussions to move some of Cooper Green Hospital’s clinics to the Norwood Clinic facility on the Carraway site, utilizing between 200,000 and 400,000 square feet of existing space. He also mentioned the possibility of building an RSA facility on the surrounding land and of converting the old McArthur school into a nursing training facility for foreign students.
Councilor Parker also called on several people in the audience who wanted to speak. Carole Clark, a Norwood resident, said that many people in her community would like to see the VA Hospital move from its downtown location to the Carraway site. This would free up more space for UAB expansion. Tom Creger of the Norwood Neighborhood Association noted that the community’s master plan had not addressed the Carraway site because they had no inkling at the time that it would close, and he asked Councilor Parker to include people from the affected neighborhoods (Norwood, Druid Hills, Fountain Heights) in discussions going forward. Rep. Jack Williams from Vestavia suggested that we look to existing entities that could move into the Carraway space and free up other real estate for private redevelopment, mentioning the Jefferson County Department of Health, Jefferson County School Board, and Birmingham School Board by name. Rose Jones, representing the Druid Hills neighborhood, asked that elected officials continue to engage Carraway’s neighbors in future discussions.
Councilor Austin asked Rogers if he intended to fight the $22 million economic development bond issue, to which Rogers replied that he doesn’t want to get into that battle but prefers to come up with a winning proposal for Jefferson County. Mary Jones of Greater Birmingham Ministries asked if there would be any consideration of public transit needs. Unfortunately, Mayor Royal and others dismissed what is actually a very important aspect of any redevelopment of the property: how do people get there? Doris Powell, president of the Fountain Heights Neighborhood Association, wrapped up the discussion with a request that Regions Bank come back to the neighborhood. Prior to the closing of the Carraway facility, Regions operated a branch inside the building.
After the meeting, I spoke with Rep. Patricia Todd, who attended but was not asked to speak, despite the fact that Carraway is in her district. I asked what she proposed for the site, and she responded that she’d like to see it become a one-stop facility for people in need, with emergency housing, medical care, and other services. Neither of us is holding our breath waiting for the Powers That Be to push that option, but we did joke that it would free up lots of property for private redevelopment if all the city’s social service agencies could be housed there.
Here’s a (likely incomplete) list of the elected officials in attendance. It’s based on faces I saw and names that were called (John Rogers likes to name-drop when he’s speaking). Birmingham mayoral candidate Patrick Cooper was also there.
- Birmingham City Councilor Maxine Parker
- Birmingham City Councilor Kim Rafferty
- Birmingham Mayor Roderick Royal
- Fultondale Mayor Jim Lowery
- Jefferson County Commissioner William Bell
- Rep. Patricia Todd
- Rep. John Rogers
- Rep. Mary Moore
- Rep. Jack Williams
- Sen. Linda Coleman
- Sen. Priscilla Dunn
- Sen. Scott Beason
The bottom line? A lot of people took a lot of time to tell us that there is no proposal on the table at this time. Maybe there will be after Gov. Riley gets back from his “business trip” to Pasadena.
In any case, I now know that the Museum’s kitchen serves awesome lemon poppyseed muffins.