Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Birmingham Disappointment

White flight decimated the City of Birmingham, scattering the majority of its wealth and white population over Shades and Double Oak mountain. Motivated partially out of racism, partially out of a failure of white and black leadership to reach any sense of consensus, the past thirty-five years have produced the rise of the suburbs and the slow death of the city. This is not an particularly original story. It's no different here than in many other cities in the United States. The history of major metropolitan areas North and South, East and West, will show the same tale.

The predominantly white, affluent suburb in which I live is named Hoover. Some twenty years ago, under the premise of if you build it, they will come a plethora of wealthy white businessmen pooled their money and funded the then-largest shopping center in the Southeast. The Galleria transformed a sleepy little community into a thriving city of 80,000 residents. The success of Hoover moved Birmingham's population further and further away from the city center. What remains worthwhile in Birmingham is the Southside, home to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the largest employer, a few good restaurants, and a shopping center called The Summit. Most of the city is impoverished, overwhelmingly African-American, and a cesspool of run-down eyesores.

When Larry Langford was elected Mayor of Birmingham three months ago, I knew trouble was on the way. Known for no small lack of ambition and a flair for the dramatic, Langford proceeded to push a large tax increase through the City Council. It was overwhelming approved yesterday. As of 1 January, the sales tax for the city itself will be increased to ten cents upon every dollar for the next six years and the tax upon businesses will be effectively doubled from now on.

What I object to most is the heavy-handed way by which this matter was handled. When business leaders protested, Langford and a few devotees on the Council caustically dismissed them. "If you leave, someone else will come," they said. "If you sell your dealership, we'll find someone else who will buy it."

Our local paper, The Birmingham News, came out strongly against the proposal. Letters to the Editor were resounding against the proposal as well. I estimate that they ran 70% against to 30% for the proposal. No specifics of this increased tax revenue have thus been spelled out, which is an accountability nightmare. Furthermore, sales taxes are not "fair and equitable", no matter what the spin doctors say. They are the most regressive taxes of all, which punish the poor to a much larger degree than they affect the wealthy. The much fairer way to resolve this situation would be to rise property taxes but doing so would have required a county-wide vote, a vote which would likely have failed.

The tax revenue is supposed to be raised to improve public transportation and build a domed stadium. Count me as someone who would love to not have to rely on his car to get everywhere, but I have a feeling that money itself is not going to be sufficient in and of itself. Effective public transportation would take into account the suburbs as well as the city of Birmingham and one gets the feeling that the public transportation system proposed would halt at the city limits.

A domed stadium has been proposed for fifteen years. The intent is to attract a big name sports program and to draw more civic and sports events to the city. I do not see the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB coming to call at any future date. I see instead a domed stadium which sits empty most of the time and when it is built is filled to, at best, half capacity. It's a panacea, at best, a dream which will likely be deferred forever.

Really, when you get down to it, the whole point of this tax is to try to save Birmingham. Instead, I think the net result will be the final nail in the city's coffin. I see a wide spread boycott of the few remaining Birmingham businesses which are solicited by patrons who live outside the city itself. I see the few remaining business mainstays who have remained within the city limits uprooting and moving to the suburbs. I see the destruction of the up and coming small businesses and entrepreneurs that the city desperately needs to stay competitive with the suburbs.

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