TARRANT, Alabama -- For decades, the working-class residents of Tarrant called their city just north of Birmingham an industrial version of Mayberry.
City officials recall a time when generations of families would send their children to the long-established city school system and entire lives would be spent in the same house, living along side the same neighbors.
About 10 years ago something, or a series of different circumstances, started to dramatically change Tarrant's demographics in terms of race, poverty and housing, according to census and city information.
This year, as the city redistricts for the next municipal elections, Tarrant will shift from a city with one minority council district to a city with four minority districts, according to the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.
That is a complete flip-flop from its redistricting in 2003, when four out of five council districts in Tarrant were majority districts, said Brett Isom, with the RPCGB.
Isom, who worked with many metro-area cities on their redistricting plans this year, said Tarrant easily had the most dramatic racial shift. Other cities have experienced the same demographic changes over a course of time, but Tarrant did it in 10 years, he said.
Mayor Loxcil Tuck said a number of factors, including white flight, have led to Tarrant's situation.
"Tarrant is an old town, soon to be 100 years old," Tuck said. "A lot of homeowners have died and their children didn't want to maintain the houses. Unfortunately, there were these little entrepreneurs out there that saw this big chance to buy up these houses. Then Section 8 came along. They (landlords) get their rent and don't have to worry about collecting it. These Section 8 houses, we have more than our fair share."
Tarrant's white population shrunk from 79.1 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. The percentage of individuals living below the poverty level rose from 16.2 percent in 2000 to 30.2 percent in 2010. More than 50 percent of Tarrant children under 18 now live below the poverty level, according to census information.
As for housing, census statistics show the percentage of renter-occupied housing units increased from almost 32 percent in 2000, to almost 46 percent in 2010. But city officials said that is just a fraction of the rental units today. Council members said more than 70 percent of Tarrant houses are now rental properties, based on information provided by the city building inspector and utility companies.
"Instead of people coming and buying homes, they are renting and not staying very long," said Councilwoman Laura Horton, who has lived in Tarrant most of her life. "It has changed the community. They are not invested in the city. They do not have a stake in the city. Any time we ask for community input, we have very low attendance.
"When my kids were growing up here, we had 90 percent home ownership. Parents were involved in the schools. Because of the low income of the families now, it takes two parents to work. Most of them work two or three jobs. I'm not saying they don't want to be involved, I'm saying they might not have an opportunity."
Statistics only show one side of what is happening in Tarrant, said Elvin Horton, city building inspector.
He said a core group of people including Tuck and the City Council are determined not to give up on their city, which still provides excellent police, fire, rescue and other city services. A downtown revitalization project has renewed a sense of pride in Tarrant and other projects, such as an ecoscape park have people excited again, he said.
"We are going to hang in there tight," Elvin Horton said. "We are going to keep working at it and try our best to restore Tarrant. We really want people to understand that."
So far, Tarrant's government does not reflect the growing minority population. Tuck and four council members are white, along with the police chief, fire chief and city school superintendent.
Annette Dunner, the only black council member, said she believes low voter turnout is responsible.
"We don't have many black voters in Tarrant," she said. "I don't know if they are registered to vote, but they are not voting. I really don't know why that is. Maybe we can find out."
Dunner has lived in Tarrant for 30 years and is finishing her first term representing District 1, the city's traditional minority district. She shares the concerns of Tuck and other council members about the number of transitional residents, but said she feels the actions of some council members have stopped more permanent housing from being built.
"Habitat for Humanity wanted to build 31 houses in Tarrant," she said. "They had bought 40 acres and needed to rezone it to high density. They had already done the work with the water lines and everything."
Eventually, the city council rejected the zoning request, 4-2, with only Dunner and Tuck voting for Habitat's request.
Dunner said this is one example where more minority representation on the board would have made a difference.
"There was a man who said he didn't want the houses there because they were mainly single women with children gone bad," Dunner said. "I told him that was really stereotyping. We cannot build up the walls of Jericho where we can't let anybody in or out. One of my goals, I would like to see an increase in the population. We are losing people."
Council member John "Tommy" Bryant represents District 5, where the Habitat houses were going to be built. It is the only remaining majority district in Tarrant, located in the more rural area of town near Fultondale.
Bryant said he did not oppose the Habitat homes, but opposed changing the zoning to high density which was not a good fit for his district.
Lots are larger in District 5 where residents have easy access to nearby Fultondale, Gardendale and Trussville, along with major highways for quick trips to Birmingham and over-the-mountain communities. And residents still get Tarrant city services, which he considers to be excellent.
"This little area is probably one of the best kept secrets in Birmingham," he said.
But Bryant is not pleased with influx of cheap rental housing in other districts of Tarrant, a problem that will keep Tarrant stagnant, he said.
Tuck said she accepts that Tarrant has changed and adds she is ready improve the city. She plans to seek reelection to continue her downtown revitalization project and other initiatives.
"Tarrant will never be what it used to be, but it can be better than it is now," she said. "We have lots and lots of black families who live in this city who want the same things I want. That is one reason they haven't had a problem electing a white mayor."
A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday at Tarrant City Hall to consider a proposed redistricting plan. The plan will slightly shift boundaries of the five council districts to adjust for population changes.
The CommuteSmart ride-sharing program will pay you to carpool.
As gasoline prices edge upward, many drivers are rethinking their daily commute to work. What was once a lonely, expensive journey can be relieved thanks to CommuteSmart, a ride-sharing program created by the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) of Greater Birmingham in 1999. "At any given time there are probably three or four thousand people that are using the program in some form, whether it's an occasional commute in or somebody riding the vanpool vans five days a week," says Greg Wingo, public affairs officer for the RPC.
The CommuteSmart database currently lists approximately 15,000 commuters. A match-ride system is available to all who sign up, which pays incentives to participate. Anyone who enlists receives a dollar a day, up to $70, over a one-time 90-day period. After three months in CommuteSmart, those enrolled are then part of the Commuter Club and receive $25 gift cards quarterly that can be used at Publix, The Summit, Cahaba Cycles, Express Oil, CVS Pharmacy, or simply for purchasing gas.
Despite its 13-year existence, the cost-saving option still isn't well known. "A rise in gas prices seems to be the time when the media seems to take the most interest in it," explains Wingo. "We consistently advertise it and we have lots of people that are very aware of it but when your pocketbook is affected by gas it seems to increase interest."
Taking vehicles off the road improves air quality through decreased carbon emissions, lessens the need for road repair, and lowers auto maintenance costs. Wingo estimates that 10.7 million commuter miles were saved in 2011 by area residents. "If you're able to take your car off the road for five of the seven days out of the week, it stretches out the lifetime of that car," he says. In addition, more than $3.5 million in commuter costs and $650,000 in fuel expenses were saved in the Birmingham area last year. "Within the way the program is set up, we can calculate the distance that somebody is commuting to and from work. We can look at the average commuter cost that somebody uses on vehicle upkeep."
"The heart of the program is getting people out of single-occupancy commuting," says Wingo. "Jefferson and Shelby Counties are the most active and the way it's set up is that you have to either live or work in those two counties. For example, we have people who live in Jefferson County and work in Montgomery, riding in a van there everyday. The Department of Health moved one of their divisions there a couple of years ago. Many of the employees didn't want to move to Montgomery. Those individuals have cut their commute cost by 90 percent. If you think about it from that standpoint, that's a really big positive for an employer. They don't have to go out and rehire or worry about requesting that their employees relocate. This program takes a lot of the financial burden off everybody. We also have people who commute to Tuscaloosa."
Most are surprised at the financial incentive. "The forgotten piece is that we'll pay couples who are already riding to work together everyday," explains Wingo. "There are so many people that are already riding together and for us that's great. We want to be able to track that. We want to be able to talk about those miles coming off the road. We don't have to be car-dependent the way we are. There are options. We have people who ride their bike to work everyday. Those individuals typically are already going to do that. We don't convince somebody to start riding a bike. But now they get something besides the exercise factor and the enjoyment--they get a little bit of money."
For those interested in vanpooling, CommuteSmart provides the van (the participant pay-outs are not available to vanpoolers) and the commuters split the cost of fuel as well as a small maintenance fee. "If you live on the outskirts of Blount County and you work at UAB and you have a 45-minute commute, you're going to be very willing to listen to those living near you who want to start a vanpool," says Wingo.
Many people are reluctant to participate in carpooling due to emergency situations that might arise. "The biggest concern we receive is 'What if something happens? What if I'm at work and I need to leave early or if the person I'm carpooling with gets sick and has to go home and I'm stuck?' Well, we have an 'emergency ride home' program," says Wingo. If some unforeseen problem occurs, CommuteSmart enrollees are reimbursed if they have to call a taxi or obtain a rental car (These options are limited to five uses per year). Wingo says that such options were used only 71 times in 2011.
The most difficult commute is no doubt the portion of Highway 280 that runs through Jefferson and Shelby Counties. Libby Carpenter lives in Eagle Point but works at The Bank of New York Mellon in downtown Birmingham, which requires a 13-mile commute on weekdays. She has been involved with CommuteSmart for two years.
"Highway 280 is awful!" Carpenter exclaims without hesitation. A friend told her about the carpooling program and its incentives and, considering the road she was forced to travel, she was quickly convinced to sign up. The relief of not having to drive daily has made life a little easier. "There are several benefits. The first is that I'm not driving that mess everyday," Carpenter says, laughing. "And it is a mess. It's a benefit for me just to be able to ride some days instead of driving behind the wheel of a car on 280," she admits. "It's a really good program. It made me think about doing something that I should have done a long time ago. I never heard of CommuteSmart until a couple of years ago. I'm saving gas and have companionship in the car, and every once in a while I get a little gift card. Everything about it is good!"
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- About 30 people gathered this evening in the Loveman Village community center to learn more about a plan to seek a $30 million federal grant to transform the aged public housing development.
The Birmingham Housing Authority plans to seek a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant for the North Titusville community. The Birmingham City Council's Budget and Finance Committee this afternoon endorsed providing nearly $10 million for infrastructure upgrades, such as street lights and sidewalks, as part of that effort.
The grant is much like the HOPE VI grants that redeveloped the former Metropolitan Gardens into Park Place downtown and the former Tuxedo Court into the new Tuxedo Terrace development in Ensley. Hope VI has been replaced with this program.
North Titusville is an ideal spot for such a development because of its proximity to UAB, Princeton Baptist Medical Center, the Birmingham Crossplex and Legion Field, said Mikhail Alert, a community planner with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.
Another plus for the proposal is one of the problems community leaders hope the development can fix: an abundance of abandoned and vacant buildings in the neighborhoods surrounding Loveman.
"That's a big, big, big plus for us because it means the cost is very low," Alert said.
Nearly 27 percent of the land in the 434-acre North Titusville community is either vacant or abandoned, Alert said. Most of the land has an appraised value of $56,000 or less, he said.
The grant could spark a redevelopment of those properties and turn Sixth Avenue South into a thriving commercial district, he said.
"It can become a magnet and a gateway into a community," Alert said.
Other community landmarks, such as the old Trinity Steel site and the Montevallo Gardens apartments and vacant lots owned by Golden Flake, could be potentially redeveloped as part of the plan and help jumpstart housing and economic development in the area, Alert said.
Community leaders and neighborhood residents present at tonight's meeting welcomed the plan.
"We want this to be a robust community again," said Birmingham City Council member Carole Smitherman, who represents the district. "We want to feel like we're not lost and forgotten about."
Loveman residents said they hope the redevelopment would help reduce crime.
Jo Ann Ellison, a resident of eight years, said someone shot out several street lights in the area Tuesday night. Another resident, who would not give her name out of fear for her children's safety, said she often drops to the floor as bullets rip through her walls.
Housing authority executive director Naomi Truman said the city contracts with Birmingham police to provide extra patrols in the community. She urged residents to call police when they see trouble and notify housing officials at 521-0623 or 521-7750.
"The city of Birmingham has a lot to offer, but we have to stand together to do what we need to do to transform the neighborhood," Truman said.
North Titusville neighborhood association president John Harris said he will be glad to see the community rid of the many burned out homes he said serve as a magnet for such crime.
"The last thing Amtrak sees when it leaves Birmingham is this neighborhood," Harris said pointing to the nearby train tracks. "We need to take out these burned out houses and make Titusville what it ought to be."
The plan is contingent on the authority getting one of the five grants being awarded in this round of funding. The application is due April 10 and the grant should be awarded nine months later, officials said.
If it is awarded, the 60-year-old, 498-unit Loveman Village will be demolished and residents moved out in phases.
Counselors will be onsite at Loveman to help residents relocate, officials said. Residents can choose to return, but in order to be eligible to return they must be compliant with the terms of their lease before moving out and during construction.
Some relocated residents might be eligible for a home ownership program. The administrator of that program, Bernard Jefferson, urged residents to call his office at 521-0628 to learn more.
"I'm ready to go. I wish they had started this yesterday," said Ellison.
Leroy Edge, a 75-year-old lifelong North Titusville resident, said he hopes the plan can return the community to the vibrant neighborhood he said it once was.
"I'll be glad when they do it. It was always a real community. This here was livable. It'll be nice to see it come back," Edge said.
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Since 2000, the city of Homewood has invested $1.3 million developing trails and green spaces -- most notably its popular three-mile Shades Creek Greenway Trail along Lakeshore Drive, which attracts walkers, joggers and bikers.
The trail and other projects designed to enhance the quality of life in the city won Homewood acclaim in 2011 as the state's most walkable city by Walk Score. Walk Score ranks communities nationwide based on how many businesses, parks, theaters, schools and other common destinations are within walking distance of any given starting point.
From Birmingham's 19-acre Railroad Park to Hoover's Moss Rock Preserve to Clay's Cosby Lake, many Birmingham-Hoover metro area cities are investing in greenways and parks as a way to market themselves.
"Time after time, residents tell you that these are the things that attract them to certain cities," said Homewood Mayor Scott McBrayer. "And I believe we've done of good job trying to incorporate trails and sidewalks into our overall plan to make Homewood a place people want to live."
Birmingham's more than $25 million investment into the spacious Railroad Park is paying early dividends.
"This green space has become a unifying place," said Camille Spratling, executive director of Railroad Park. "When we ask people what they like the most about the park, they inevitably say the diversity of people who visit. We're not focusing on things that divide us. We enjoy coming together in this beautiful space."
While developing parks is nothing new for cities, identifying and preserving tracts of land for recreational and environmental enjoyment has become more of a forethought than an afterthought once commercial and economic development needs have been met, experts say.
The recent unveiling of the proposed Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System by the Freshwater Land Trust illustrates the level of synergy around the issue.
Julie Hughes of Vestavia Hills walks her dog Ellie along the Shades Creek Greenway in Homewood. (The Birmingham News/Beverly Taylor)
The long-term plan includes nearly 250 miles of greenways and trails and 500 miles of bike and pedestrian paths running along creeks and rivers throughout Jefferson County. The plan can be viewed at www.redrocktrail.org.
Though the plan may take 30 years to complete, its supporters hail it as a significant start.
"Over the past 10 years, a lot of advancement has been made with our parks and our communities," said Wendy Jackson, executive director for the Freshwater Land Trust, a Birmingham-based nonprofit. Its mission is the acquisition and stewardship of lands that enhance water quality and preserve open space.
"It's because there was just a drought of (dedicated) green space, she said. "We pretty much had done nothing in this community. But now the goal is to try to not only develop green spaces but to have that kind of interconnectivity and trail systems that have been so successful in helping drive economic development and healthy lifestyles."
A driving force behind interest in greenways and green spaces is Alabama's obesity rate, among the nation's worst.
The Jefferson County Department of Health partnered with the Land Trust to help secure a $13.3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat obesity, Jackson said. That money helped fund the long-term greenway plan.
But greenways don't have to be elaborate networks of trails connecting communities.
"When you're in an urban or a suburban setting, even having the smallest of parks can add a lot of value to the greater neighborhood," said Tom Maxwell, senior environmental planner for the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. "There is a demand for different kinds of parks and green spaces, different kinds of trail systems and networks.
"What we're starting to see now is some synergy building," he said. "Where you used to have a small constituency like the Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers promoting this, there's no longer a myopic perspective driving this issue anymore."
Many Birmingham-area cities have begun developing their own green spaces and trails, some connected to the Land Trust's regional master plan and others that are more parochial.
Here is a look at some of them.
Hoover has added more green space and parks in the last seven years than any time in its history, Mayor Gary Ivey said.
Ivy mentioned Veterans Park off Valleydale Road and the Moss Rock Preserve as the most high-profile and most used by residents. The city wants to add 79 acres to the 250-acre Moss Rock Preserve nature park, which the city bought for $4.55 million in 2007.
Hoover has asked the Land Trust to study whether it can dedicate the 79 acres to the preserve. City officials say the goal is to preserve an environmental treasure for future generations.
In 2008, the city of Clay and the Freshwater Land Trust spent $1 million to purchase 50 acres, including Cosby Lake off Old Springville Road and to make it a park.
Last year, Clay spent nearly $200,000 to build two pedestrian bridges at Cosby Lake, which allows park visitors to walk the perimeter of the lake.
"We have people who love to visit there on the weekends," Mayor Ed McGuffie said. "They were coming even before we were finished."
Clay officials want to extend the park west through property the Alabama Department of Youth Services owns, the mayor said.
That would give Clay access to green space up to Turkey Creek -- a waterway the Land Trust's master plan cites as a route to connect with neighboring cities.
"It is important to all of our citizens to have a place where they can walk and get in shape and take their kids to play," McGuffie said. "This is a great place we have."
Tarrant over the past seven years has invested more than $3 million -- much of it through government grants -- to establish and expand green space, Mayor Loxcil Tuck said.
Constant flooding at a mobile home community on the outskirts of town on Alabama 79 gave Tarrant officials the chance to convert 16 acres into a city park.
"People are coming from all over to walk around the track in our 16-acre park," Tuck said. "Every day you go out there you'll see 10 or 15 cars in the parking lot where people have come to walk the track."
Tarrant officials plan to link the park to a greenway trail that runs through downtown and connects the city's elementary and middle schools. Tarrant has received a $400,000 federal grant to continue expanding the trail, which includes bike paths and runs through a pocket park the city established off Ford Avenue.
"We've put up bike racks, we've put up crossings for bikes and we've stripped bike lanes," Tuck said.
Though Tarrant is strapped for funds, the investment has been well worth it, the mayor said.
"It saves on gas when you can walk and ride your bike," she said. "We have more obesity right now than we've ever had in this country, so I just think it's healthy and it's good for everybody."
Spratling said Railroad Park has already seen what its drawing power can do for the city.
Rangers patrol Birmingham's Railroad Park as buildings rise in the distance. (The Birmingham News/Mark Almond)
Real estate developer Shannon Waltchack renovated Railroad Square, a mixed use office and retail development, and moved its corporate headquarters from suburban Birmingham to the downtown site.
"The development piece is something you see nationally, but something you see locally as well," Spratling said. "Attractive, safe green space produces economic development around surrounding areas."
Healthwise, Railroad Park has free exercise classes Monday through Friday at 6 p.m. "One of the things green space does is help people become more healthy," Spratling said. "And having free exercise classes here encourages that even more."
Last year, the park attracted 166,000 visitors.
Homewood hopes to expand its greenway trail beyond Lakeshore Drive and Green Springs Highway to the former Wynnsong Theater west of Interstate 65. The Metropolitan Planning Organization has placed the $3.2 million project in its four-year budget. Homewood would have to pay 20 percent of that and has allocated a portion of that match -- $300,000 -- in its current budget.
Ultimately, the trail would cross Lakeshore Parkway on a pedestrian bridge near John Carroll High School and link to West Homewood Park.
McBrayer said that would connect his community to the planned 1,200-acre Red Mountain Park, giving Homewood greater connection to green spaces beyond its borders.
Vestavia Hills has plans to tie into the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System. The city has applied for a $50,000 state grant to help fund a pedestrian bridge at its McCallum Park.
The bridge would span little Shades Creek and give visitors access to 14 acres it owns on the northwest side of the creek, and access to property the Freshwater Land Trust owns.
"We would like to put trails through there and go in and tie into the city of Hoover," said Mayor Alberto "Butch" Zaragoza. "We've been working here lately with Mountain Brook about the possibility of putting some trails along the Cahaba River."
Although the overall cost of the pedestrian bridge is about $216,500, the Parks and Recreation Foundation has committed $150,000 toward the project. The foundation is also trying to raise $7.5 million for present and future park development through Vestavia Hills, which includes further development of the new sports complex off Sicard Hollow Road.
The city and foundation spent nearly $5.5 million to build synthetic turf fields for youth soccer, lacrosse and football. Park and city officials also want to build a linear park on the remaining property, which includes abandoned mines. That park would be similar to Hoover's Veterans Park and could include picnic shelters, a pavilion, an amphitheater, a fitness trail encircling the park, a dog park and a splash park.
The sports fields occupy 16 acres of the 63-acre Sicard Hollow property.
"We've heard from citizens that they'd like to see more parks," Zaragoza said. "I think our city officials would like to have that too."
Mountain Brook last summer bought 4.7 acres off Overton Road and River Run Road from Brookwood Baptist Church for $250,000. The city is considering the property for a park, to be called Cahaba River Park. Plans include a quarter-mile walkway, a pavilion, a parking lot and canoe access to the river.
Project consultant Nimrod Long said the city is considering a low-impact plan that wouldn't change much of the natural setting. However, the complete plan for the park has a price tag of about $500,000, meaning city officials may take several years to tackle the project incrementally.
Pelham spent $4.9 million last summer to purchase about 36 acres adjacent to the city park off U.S. 31.
City officials have not decided how to use the additional land, some of which holds a mobile home park. But there have been discussions about soccer, lacrosse and baseball fields and a multipurpose recreational center with an indoor pool, track and basketball courts.
Mayor Don Murphy has said the City Council and park board will work with an architect to determine what will be developed there.
"All of that will come in time in a total scope of a plan, but what's important is we now have the property we can develop over time," Murphy said.
Helena plans to develop a two-mile trail along Buck Creek for walking, jogging and cycling.
The trail would begin at the city's amphitheater and wind along creek banks to connect Helena's new municipal park on Ruffin Road and the historic Billy Gould Coke Oven site near the Cahaba River. It would also link the existing middle school and future high school, city officials say.
The trail plan is being reviewed by the Alabama Department of Transportation, said City Councilwoman Katherine Ennis.
City officials hope to begin construction by the fall or winter of this year, Ennis said.
"Since I've been involved, there has been a high degree of interest and support from Helena residents," she said.
"In addition, this project will result in a substantial improvement to Helena's quality of life," Ennis said.
GRAYSVILLE, Alabama -- The city of Graysville on Tuesday will have a public hearing on a proposed redistricting plan that would redraw City Council district lines in the city.
Graysville is working with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham on the plan, which is designed to even out population totals among the city's five voting districts.
Brett Isom of the Regional Planning Commission said he has presented the city with eight proposals on redrawing the district lines. Some of the proposals would eliminate one voting district, while other proposals keep five voting districts for the city.
The public hearing is to be held during the city's regular council meeting. The meeting, held at Graysville City Hall, is to begin at 7 p.m.
Medicaid Waiver Program Case Manager
- Hometown: Albany, GA
- Education: Undergraduate Degree in Healthcare Administration and Master's Degree in Public Health Administration and Health Care Management.
- How long have you been with the RPCGB?: 5 months
- Give a short overview of your job: As a case manager, I assist individuals in gaining access to appropriate, needed and desired waiver and other State Plan services, as well as needed medical, social, educational, and other appropriate services. I help provide necessary coordination with providers of non-medical, non-waiver services, when the services provided by these entities are needed to enable individuals to function at the highest attainable level or to benefit from programs for which he or she might be eligible.
- What is your favorite aspect of your job?: I enjoy talking with the clients and helping them out. We have so many clients in need and I love to see them smile.
- Tell us one thing we don't know about you: I love to watch Lifetime and spend time with my family.
- Finish this sentence: "Ten years from now, I hope to...": be traveling, watching my child grow into a young adult and enjoying every aspect of my life.
Joseph Hughes, Mayor of Locust Fork
- Attended Marion Military Institute and studied public relations at Auburn University
- Works in the highway construction industry, first in his family business and now with APAC.
- Asked by the former mayor to fill a vacant position on the Locust Fork Planning Commission in 2006. Shortly after, he was nominated to the town council and ran for mayor in 2009 when his council term ended.
- Spends free time field trialing throughout the Southeast
Mayor Hughes on the difficulties facing small towns: Locust Fork has around 1,300 citizens. We are a bedroom community to Birmingham and Cullman. Being a town with little tax base, it's tough to provide services and grow. Our biggest problem is not having a sanitary sewer system. We have tried to make it happen through federal grants and state funds. We hired an engineer and designed the system without having a funding source. Ultimately, it wouldn't fund itself and other sources aren't available. We need a sewer system to attract new businesses and restaurants. They won't locate in a town without one.
On creating projects with a tight budget: We recently purchased a rescue truck for the fire department. We have an agreement with the Blount County Sheriffs Department in which deputies patrol the town, eliminating the need for a police force. We are paving the worst roads throughout the municipality. We are working with St. Vincent's to create a medical clinic in town, as we have no doctors here. The clinic will be up and running in July. We are building a community center for town events and gatherings. All of this is being done while borrowing very little money and trying to stay within our means.
On the future: Prior to the economic crash a few years ago, we had proposals of new subdivisions every month. There was a lot of suggested new growth. As the economy grows, so will Locust Fork. I think people will migrate into our area and as they arrive, their desires and demands for services will put pressure on the town and we will rise to their demands.
Transportation Planning Process Public Involvement Meeting
Purpose: This meeting is part of a review that will assess compliance with Federal regulations pertaining to the transportation planning process conducted by the Birmingham MPO, Alabama Department of Transportation, Birmingham / Jefferson County Transit Authority, and units of local government in the Birmingham area.
Hosted By: Representatives of the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Alabama Department of Transportation, Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.
Thursday, March 15, 2012, 5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham 1731 1st Avenue North, 1st Floor Conference Room Birmingham, Alabama 35203
If you are not able to attend the meeting, please address your comments to: Federal Highway Administration, Alabama Division, 9500 Wynlakes Place, Montgomery, AL 36117-8515
Anyone requiring special accommodations should advise Cissy Edwards Crowe (205-251-8139) at least one week in advance. For additional information concerning the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), please visit www.rpcgb.org
This month's Revolving Loan Fund Highlight is
Compliance Specialists, Inc.
Compliance Specialists, Inc. (CSI) is a 17-year-old company providing consulting services to companies needing help in complying with federal and state regulatory requirements regarding safety, environmental, and health. CSI offers a full complement of training, engineering support, program development, auditing, and program management support in all areas of safety and environmental compliance.
Based out of the Bessemer Business Incubator system, CSI's market consists of companies operating in all industrial categories. Heavy industries such as steel and automotive, food processing and packaging, pulp and paper, high tech machine shops and fabricators, and commercial / residential construction are all industries that CSI supports as clients. CSI also works with retail companies in need of safety, health, and/or environmental support.
CSI team members at work
CSI has been a participant in the RPCGB's Account Receivables lending program since 2010. The company has used the program to grow its staff and expand its business.
"We have added two employees since our initial RPCGB loan," said CSI's Ron McClenny, "We plan to bring on one to one and a half new employees every 12 months for the next five years. This will result in more than doubling our annual revenue over those five years."
To learn more about CSI and the work they are doing to help companies comply with safety, health and environmental regulations, visit their website. For more information on the RPCGB's Revolving Loan Fund, please visit the RPCGB website.
As the price of gasoline at the pump continues to rise, so do the number of people signing up for the RPCGB's commuter program, CommuteSmart. Through the promotion of carpooling, vanpooling, teleworking, biking, walking or taking public transit, CommuteSmart saves commuters money at the pump as well as and puts cash in their pockets. The program has seen a 36 percent increase in sign-up over the last six months as compared to the same time one year earlier.
More than 10.7 million vehicle miles were reduced through the CommuteSmart program. Commuters saved more than $3.5 million in estimated commuter costs and more than $650,000 in fuels costs in the Birmingham area during 2011. With gas prices rising to nearly $4/gallon, Birmingham area commuters are looking for a way to save money. Through its Get Green program, CommuteSmart pays commuters $1 per day, up to $70 over a 90-day period to change their commutes from driving alone to a qualified alternative commute. Commuters are paid for each day they carpool, telework, take transit, bike or walk to work. Through its ride-matching database, CommuteSmart can match riders to find the optimal potential carpool and vanpool partners.
Commuter Club is another incentive program open to residents and workers of Jefferson and Shelby counties. CommuteSmart provides $25 gift cards on a quarterly basis to commuters logging at least 20 qualified commute trips during the course of the quarter. Participants in the Get Green program automatically roll over into the Commuter Club program after the initial 120 days.
CommuteSmart also provides a vanpool program designed to assist groups of seven to 15 people who ride to and from work each day with the use of a comfortable passenger van. The cost of vanpooling varies from van to van. Each van passenger pays an equal share of the operating costs which include the van payment, gasoline, parking, etc. So the more riders you have, the less you pay!
If you or your company are feeling the pain at the gas pump, contact CommuteSmart to find out how they can help. Visit the website or call 1-87-RIDEMATCH for more information.
The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham was in attendance at the American Planning Association Alabama Chapter (ALAAPA) meetings on February 16 in Mobile for the honoring of its longtime planning director. Bill Foisy was the 2012 recipient of the Richard L. Platt Career Achievement Award. This award is named in memory of Richard L. Platt, former Northport Director of Planning, and recognizes a person who has provided outstanding contributions to the planning profession and who is near or at retirement in his/her career.
ALAAPA is a non-profit public interest and research organization dedicated to urban, suburban, regional and rural planning. Membership is made up of planners at all government levels, private consultants, local planning board members, landscape architects, environmental scientists, lawyers, professors, students and other professionals dedicated to sound planning principles. The award was presented during the ALAAPA annual luncheon which was attended by planners and elected officials from all over the state.
Foisy's career spanned 37 years and included the creation of countless projects and plans. His involvement included the early discussions of Corridor X/I-22, the creation of I-459 and spearheading the development of and funding for CLASTRAN. He and his wife, Sue, relocated to Red Lodge, Montana in early 2011. The RPCGB congratulates Bill on this well-deserved acknowledgment!
A national movement to re-design streets to make them safer for bikers and pedestrians is getting a local push from Conservation Alabama and the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership.
In February, Midfield became the latest area city to pass a resolution endorsing "Complete Streets," an approach to road-building that takes into consideration all modes of transportation, not just cars.
The city of Birmingham has adopted a similar resolution and Adam Snyder, Conservation Alabama's executive director, said he'd also talked to officials in Tarrant and Bessemer about the concept.
It's a push that dovetails with efforts led by the Jefferson County Health Department to drive down rates of smoking and obesity, and the related proposal to create a countywide network of bike and pedestrian trails, the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System.
Snyder said the resolution simply encourages cities to consider an array of measures from sidewalks and bike lanes to roundabouts and dedicated bus lanes when pursuing road repair or building projects.
"Passing the resolution doesn't obligate them to do anything, but it is a first step to getting cities aware of what they can do to complete their streets," Snyder said.
According to the most recent Dangerous by Design report from the advocacy group Transportation for America, the Birmingham-Hoover metro area ranked as the 16th most dangerous major metro area for pedestrians, with 136 pedestrians killed on local roadways between 2000 and 2009. More than 47,700 pedestrians were killed in the United States during those years.
The electronic version of the report, available on the group's website at t4america.org, includes a searchable map of pedestrian fatalities.
According to the report, there is a predictable correlation: the cities that are the most dangerous for walking also are the cities that have the smallest percentage of people walking to work.
In cities where a greater percentage of the population walks to work, walkers are less likely to be struck and killed.
Since the end of World War II, when cars became more widely available, transportation planners have tended to focus on making roads move more cars and move them faster.
Lanes were added and got wider. Streets were straightened so they could handle faster speeds. Accommodations for walkers and bikers often were an afterthought, if they were considered at all.
But more recently, a growing movement of transportation officials have encouraged more attention to walkers and bikers. Some of the measures designed to improve conditions for bikers and walkers actually resulted in streets that are safer and smoother flowing for cars.
"We can build streets that are safer for motorists and for bicyclists and pedestrians. It is a win-win for everybody," Snyder said.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation is requiring that all federal projects that build new roads or improve existing ones to take walkers and bikers into consideration.
The Complete Streets movement is not without its critics, and that includes some of Alabama's top transportation officials. State DOT officials actively opposed a state law pushed last session in the Alabama Legislature by the AARP that would have created a state-level complete streets requirement. And Alabama DOT Director John Cooper complained to Congress that the federal requirement to consider alternative modes of transportation was onerous and unneeded.
Critics also complain that money used for sidewalks and bike accommodations diverts limited money needed for roads and road repair.
Darrell Howard, a planner with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham said his agency has been encouraging communities to consider complete streets for years and just last week held another round of training on the subject. Howard said fears that the approach will create additional cost or lead to unnecessary sidewalks are overblown.
"There is still a lot of resistance and some misunderstanding," he said.
A street with light traffic and where traffic isn't racing doesn't need sidewalks or bike lanes, Howard said.
Some major arterial roads with high speeds and heavy traffic are never going to be a comfortable climate for bicyclists, he added.
The complete streets tool kit isn't just sidewalks and bike lanes. A slightly wider paved shoulder might improve conditions for cars, bikers and pedestrians.
Roundabouts, crosswalks, signs, streets signals and dedicated lanes for buses all are things cities can consider.
Transportation officials just have to demonstrate they've thought through whether or which accommodations for walkers and bikers are appropriate on a project, Howard said.
"U.S. DOT is flexible on the waivers," he said. "It doesn't have to be a big burden. But there is a cultural resistance to it. They spend a lot of time saying we can't do it at all, ever."
Howard said projects often are easiest to pull off at the city level. Federally-funded projects flowing through the Alabama Department of Transportation have to meet a high level of design and scrutiny. Locally funded projects can be more nimble.
Snyder said the more local projects pursued, the more ALDOT will understand the popularity and possibilities in the approach.
"It would be great to have the state and the DOT on board," he said. "But there are a lot of streets at the city level."
PELL CITY - Mayor Bill Hereford announced that the U.S. Department of Justice approved the city's new voting district map.
"It's a done deal, and we are happy," Hereford said.
The proposed district map was approved by the council in November by a 5-1 vote.
Councilwoman Dot Wood voted against the proposed map after one resident objected to the removal of certain areas from District 2 that had always been there on the district map.
Wood said in November she voted against the proposed map because the DOJ could reject the map proposal because of the large deviation in district populations, and the map could come back to the council, which would have limited time to correct.
Brett Isom, with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and who drafted three voting district proposals for the city council, said the map approved by DOJ varied in district populations of more than the recommended 5 percent deviation.
Isom told the council last year that his first two proposed redistricting maps remained within the 5 percent population deviation for each district, which is recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last year, Isom told the council that ideally each district should have about 2,539 people, give or take a 5 percent deviation.
The map approved by DOJ has 2,500 people in District 1, 2,268 people in District 2, 2,666 people in District 3, 2,913 people in District 4 and District 5 has 2,348 people.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the previous District 4 saw the largest increase in population and had 3,673 people living inside that district.
In Isom's first two district map proposals, the District 4 population count was reduced to 2,664-2,696 people.
With the map now signed off by DOJ, four of the five districts vary more in populations more than the first two proposals Isom offered to the council last year.
District 4 has a plus 14.7 percent deviation in population compared to the other four districts in the newly approved map. District 2 has a minus 10.7 percent deviation, District 5 has a minus 7.5 percent deviation, District 3 has a plus 5 percent deviation and District 1 has a minus 1.5 percent population deviation.
The 2010 U.S. Census showed that the minority district dropped below the 50 percent mark since the last redistricting process 10 years ago, and only about 47 percent of District 2 represented the minority vote.
District 2 remains a minority district with the newly approved map.
The new voting district map is available at city hall.
We applaud the Legislature's focus on creating jobs and growing Alabama's economy. There are several bills that would provide valuable tools for economic development in Birmingham's neighborhoods and City Center.
As economic development professionals who have spent our entire careers pursuing urban revitalization, we can testify to the great impact these incentives will have for our city and state. We have seen these kinds of economic development tools created in other states, resulting in significant investment, revitalization and job creation.
We are particularly impressed with House Bill 271, which would stimulate private investment in renovation of older buildings and historic structures in Birmingham and Alabama's other major cities. This bill would authorize a 10 percent tax credit for renovation of buildings built before 1939, which will benefit Birmingham's older neighborhoods. The bill will also provide a 25 percent tax credit for renovation of owner-occupied homes and businesses in Birmingham's numerous historic districts as well as individually designated historic structures.
These historic tax credits, which would offset state income taxes, are strong incentives to encourage private investment in the renovation of neglected buildings and improvements to other properties by developers or individuals. Many vacant buildings that currently detract from their neighbors could be renovated and reoccupied and become assets for surrounding business districts and neighborhoods. The results would include stronger business districts and neighborhoods, significant increases in property values and additional tax revenues for state and local governments.
Up to $100 million of renovation could be stimulated per year by the $25 million of credits permitted by the bill. More than 60 percent of these renovation expenditures would become wages for construction workers. Contractors, suppliers, architects and others would also benefit.
Additional incentives are needed to attract investors and developers for vacant buildings such as the Pizitz Building, Lyric Theatre, the Cabana Hotel and many other historic buildings in the City Center. Neighborhoods such as Ensley, North Birmingham, Woodlawn, East Lake and others would be able to access these incentives for their revitalization. The state tax credits would be combined with federal credits that have been instrumental in the growth of loft living in the City Center.
State tax credits similar to those proposed in HB 271 are offered by 31 states, including neighboring states Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi. Alabama needs these tax credits to compete effectively for private investment dollars for major urban projects.
Additional taxes for state, county and city governments would be generated by the proposed tax credits as property values increase for the renovated buildings and the surrounding areas. New businesses in commercial buildings would also pay taxes and contribute to the economy. A study of a historic neighborhood in each of seven Alabama cities by Professor M. Kent Deravi of Auburn University-Montgomery found that properties in historic districts appreciated in value two, three or even four times as fast as properties in other neighborhoods. The tax credits would be a sound investment.
House Bill 257, the New Markets Development Act, also has potential to create jobs and attract private investment in Birmingham and other major cities. This bill, which provides tax credits for investment in low-income communities, could be combined with federal New Market Tax Credits to provide powerful incentives for major projects.
Cultural districts in cities and towns would be encouraged by House Bill 142. Districts would be designated by the Alabama Council on the Arts in cooperation with city governments. The work of artists who live and work in these districts would be exempt from sales taxes.
At least 11 states have created cultural economic development strategies designed to stimulate the creative economy. Louisiana created such a designation in 2007, on the eve of our national economic downturn, to cultivate cultural industries and spur arts-related development. These districts have collectively witnessed a reduction in vacancy rates of between 1 percent and 15 percent and a 35 percent net growth in cultural businesses.
A survey by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham found that, after education and economic development, the highest goal was development of "vibrant, walkable and cool" urban areas. These incentives are supported by the Birmingham Business Alliance, Operation New Birmingham and Birmingham Mayor William Bell.