Written by Rosalind Fournier ⎪ Photography by Chuck St. John
Newly minted Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin appreciates the beauty and draw of Railroad Park as much as the next guy. He knows people love Regions Field. And who doesn’t see progress in watching people move back downtown from the suburbs, seizing the opportunity to enjoy a variety of new, hip dining and entertainment venues all within walking or biking distance?
But amid all the excitement about the resurgence of Birmingham’s downtown, Woodfin saw his opening as a candidate for mayor. While his strongest opponent—William Bell, a popular, two-term incumbent—could claim bragging rights for having ushered in much of that development, Woodfin dared to point out its limitations. After all, he says, Birmingham has 99 distinct neighborhoods. Much of the new development—safe, attractive, family-friendly spaces populated with new restaurants and attractions—is located in just one of them, and he doesn’t see much of the growth trickling down to Birmingham’s other 98 neighborhoods.
Instead, he knows a lot of citizens outside the city center are living with high crime rates, their neighborhoods suffering from a lack of investment in infrastructure, small business support or services for young people at risk. He knows it because he and his family members grew up in these neighborhoods. He also knows it because for as many doors as he knocked on, day after day out in the summer heat, people told him, and he listened.
“This is where the whole notion of a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ comes in,” Woodfin says. “You can’t brag and say the city’s revenue has increased $67 million, and a majority of your city outside downtown looks the same or worse over a seven year-period. That is a disconnect.”
Woodfin ran a grassroots campaign for sure, even receiving the unofficial seal of approval by Our Revolution, a progressive political network founded by Sen. Bernie Sanders, which gave a modest $1,000 campaign contribution. (Sanders also recorded robocalls for Woodfin, and Our Revolution volunteers sent thousands of text messages.)
On the surface, comparisons between Sanders, the Vermont senator and 2016 presidential candidate, and Woodfin, a former school board president, seem like a stretch. Sanders is loud and wags his finger a lot; Woodfin is soft spoken and mild mannered. At 36, Woodfin is also young—Birmingham’s youngest mayor since 1893. His age happens to be the first question he was asked when he was knocking on doors, forgoing his suit and tie for a “Woodfin for Mayor” T-shirt when it got too hot outside.
“I don’t look 36, apparently,” he says. “I don’t know how 36 is supposed to look. But I think it was easy to get over for two reasons. One, I took the time to listen to voters, and they had a lot to say. Two, I’m a dinosaur compared to the people I had working on the team. They were in their 20s.”
Yet Woodfin does share Sanders’ populist themes and commitment to giving a voice to the disenfranchised. And he calls it as he sees it. Asked if Birmingham’s place in the national polls when it comes to crime—third most dangerous U.S. city according to U.S. News and World Report—isn’t a little misleading, given that plenty of residents seem to come and go wherever they want without fear or incident, and Woodfin doesn’t miss a beat. “I don’t think the numbers are misleading,” he says. “I think we have a crime problem.”
That disconnect goes back to focusing on a too-narrowly defined downtown, Woodfin explains. “I think people who come into our city do feel safe. They come into our city center—Railroad Park, the baseball stadium…we protect those assets. You see all the foot patrol around there, right? It’s visible. You feel safe.
“But when you talk to the thousands of people that I’ve talked to who live (elsewhere) in the city limits, they don’t feel safe. They don’t feel safe on their porch or in their front yard. What if we treated protection and police presence in some of these high crime areas like we do our assets like Railroad Park and Regions Field? Think about that for a second. We need to have the same type of energy and commitment for the people who live in those areas like Central Park West, Ensley, Gate City or Kingston where the crime is high.”
Woodfin is confident that as mayor he can help kick start revitalization of residential areas—and business growth along with it—in Birmingham’s more depressed communities because he’s seen it done. Starting in December 2016, he and his team began traveling to cities around the country to study success stories. “We looked at best practices,” he says. “I’ll tell you why best practices are important. If we find somebody who’s found a way to decrease crime, decrease gun violence, increase academic achievement, and decrease the achievement gap, why would we reinvent the wheel? It’s called benchmarking. We need to bring it back.”
One thing that excited him was to see how other places where the city centers are flourishing like Birmingham’s are also seeing growth spread all around the nucleus. “It’s exciting to see us be a part of a downtown trend,” Woodfin says. “Now we need to take a look at our downtown borders. The historical neighborhoods that touch the nucleus—i.e. the city center—can receive some residual growth as well. That’s happening in Atlanta, Nashville, Austin or even Detroit now. Washington, D.C. is another great example. In our space in Birmingham, that could be Norwood, Fountain Heights, Druid Hills. So what can I do as mayor to invest in our historical neighborhoods?”
One way, Woodfin says, is to continue doing what’s worked in other comeback neighborhoods around Birmingham. “When you look at South Avondale, there’s growth. We see small businesses expanding and continuing to come online. You see the commercial corridor expand in Crestwood. Guess what the anchor is through all of those areas? It’s green space. Railroad Park, Avondale Park and Crestwood Park all had an infusion of city resources. Avondale Park is a great example. The Friends of Avondale Park along with the city totally redid that. Crestwood Park got a major upgrade. I don’t have to tell you about Railroad Park. Green space allows us to be in a space where now all types of people—black, white, young, old—want to participate in things outside. It’s family fun, safe. All of the sudden things start building around it. But in my opinion you don’t get the three blocks of all that’s happening in Avondale without having seen investment in that park. You didn’t get the small business coming online without the city’s investment in Crestwood Park, or all the things downtown—baseball and housing and commercial and hotels—without Railroad Park.
“And so my thought process is you have an existing commercial corridor in West End, Five Points West, downtown Ensley, North Birmingham…we should be investing in the green space to kick start it and be a catalyst for making sure the private sector starts looking to invest in the existing commercial corridors. Right now, we’re not doing some things that other cities are doing around supporting entrepreneurship. We need a full infrastructure investment if we want our commercial corridors and our residential areas to grow.”
Woodfin knows that business growth is a critical element of the city’s success in building the tax base as well as improving quality of life. For the latter, it means more job and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as convenient access to services and consumer goods for residents in underserved neighborhoods.
Big picture, it means revenue for the City of Birmingham. “Thirty-two percent of our revenue comes from sales tax,” Woodfin says. “Eighteen percent comes from businesses licenses, and then a stair step below that is occupational tax at 17 percent. So that’s 67 percent of our revenue. That’s one of my responsibilities as mayor to engage and partner with them.”
Beyond investing in infrastructure that will make neighborhoods themselves more attractive for small business, Woodfin plans to make city hall more business friendly by streamlining processes and treating business owners like valued customers.
“If you need to renew your business license, expand your business or go through a permitting process, we as a city need to be more efficient and customer-service oriented to be a legitimate one-stop shop,” he says. “We need to give options with technological advances to renew a business license online so they have less interaction with the city if they want to, but if they choose to interact with us, it needs to be more professional. So that’s a culture shift.”
Still, it’s hard not to wonder if, despite his ultimate win by a wide margin, he senses any reticence in corporate Birmingham about jumping on board, given the Sanders endorsement. (Senators Chuck Schumer and Cory Booker as well as Hillary Clinton—whose campaign Woodfin ran in Alabama during her 2016 presidential campaign—also called to congratulate Woodfin after his victory). Is Birmingham ready for a Sanders progressive, and is that even a fair characterization?
“I think people see me as a progressive, period,” he says. “When you look at city hall, a progressive represents a lot of different things. It represents efficient government. Openness. Transparency. Collaborative-style governing. Civility. Working with the council. It represents actually thinking outside the box in how we engage small business owners. Supporting entrepreneurship. Being accessible.
“The business community is probably scared, because I’m probably seen as some form of radical. I think you’ve sat with me here long enough to see I’m not a radical crazy guy. I’m not anti-business. My vision is big enough for everybody to come in and be under the tent.
“The other thing is this. When you think of our utilities—Alabama Power, Spire, or our insurance companies, banks—they all are in the space where they want better for the community. The bottom line is they have clients and customers, too. They want to grow. So we’re all in the same boat.
“As calm as I am,” Woodfin adds, “I’m also passionate. If I see something that is wrong, there is no room to sit on the sideline. You don’t ask permission to try and address it and make it better.” ∞