Smaller Birmingham-Jefferson Arena Garners Support

Fri June 22, 2007 - Southeast Edition
CEG



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) Some top business leaders said they support a smaller arena for the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), but a legislative proposal on funding for it hasn’t been approved.

Business leaders who had not taken a public position on the proposal to build a $429 million 40,000-seat arena said a downsizing of the original plan and a presentation at a meeting in early May had won their support.

Among those now backing the idea are Alabama Power Co. Chief Executive Charles McCrary and Regions Financial Corp. President C. Dowd Ritter.

“I, for one, think it’s a great idea,” Ritter told The Birmingham News.

Jefferson County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins said the county’s support hinges on passage of legislation that would ensure the county’s ability to continue collecting a half-percent occupational tax.

The tax generates $60 million a year for the county, $10 million of which goes to the BJCC. Without that $10 million in guaranteed income, the BJCC’s bankers won’t sign off on the $495 million bond issue that would finance arena construction, BJCC Executive Director Jack Fields said.

A bill before the Legislature would rewrite the law that created the tax, presumably bringing the legal fisticuffs to an end and ensuring continued collection of the tax.

Two bills introduced by state Rep. Arthur Payne, R-Birmingham, have not reached committee. There’s no guarantee the Legislature will consider the proposals in the four weeks before the session ends.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said if the House acts on an occupational tax bill, he is confident it would pass in the Senate.

Officials earlier had pitched a much larger expansion, including a 65,000-seat arena, which had opposition from the public and elected officials.

But at a meeting of the Birmingham Business Leadership Council on May 9, Fields and a consultant from a sports architecture firm made a case for the smaller, 40,000-seat arena that would cost approximately $429 million, including other improvements to the BJCC.

Now that Birmingham is unlikely to win an NFL franchise, they said, the BJCC has realistic hopes of landing only one event a year that would need more space — the Magic City Classic football game.

McCrary said he is among those who had serious reservations about the proposal to build an NFL-sized facility, but is now convinced the city needs the smaller arena.

“The BJCC is tired, and I think it’s time for the city of Birmingham to put on a new set of clothes,” he said. “I think it’s important for Birmingham to be able to compete.”

The plan does not have the endorsement of Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, co-chairman of the county legislative delegation. Rogers said building anything less than the larger dome would be unfair.

“If Charles McCrary or the Business Council wants to build a 40,000-seat stadium, let them put the money up. I will not participate in it,” Rogers said.

Payne, also co-chairman of the county delegation, said the occupational tax bills may not pass in this session because of problems in the Senate.

“I don’t think they will be able to pass any local bills,” Payne said. “Something has to be worked out in the Senate before any local bills can be passed.”

If the occupational tax bill passes the Legislature and both the City Council and County Commission endorse the plan, the BJCC would sell $495 million in bonds, according to materials the BJCC released at the presentation to business leaders.