Roy S. Johnson: World Games’ $14 million debt indeed ‘sucks’, city council’s anger did not – AL.com

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The World Games Plaza is located in CitywalkBHAM, the newly open, massive park under the I-59/20 bridge in downtown Birmingham between 15th Street North and 25th Street North. (Shauna Stuart| AL.com)
This is an opinion column.
It sucks indeed—as Mayor Randall Woodfin effusively shared Tuesday near the end of an arduous and wrenching city council meeting when Birmingham finally faced the “dark cloud” (thank you, Councilor Valerie Abbott) of the otherwise brightness of the World Games: The $14 million tab the world left behind.
It sucks Birmingham had little choice but to yank $5 million from taxpayers to address the debt.
It sucks Jefferson County taxpayers (that’s reaching in many of our wallets twice) must ante up, too—$4 million, most likely, to be voted on during the next commission meeting.
It sucks the Convention & Visitors Bureau has got to chip in, as well, with $1 million, it seems. (At least that money is culled from out-of-towners mostly since the CVB is funded by the city’s 6.5% lodging tax.)
It sucks corporations around the region will also pinch their shareholders to help close the gap. (Though they’ll be alright.)
Read also: World Games $14 million shortfall; ‘We have every intention … to pay our vendors,’ CEO says
It sucks many local World Games vendors are sweating paying their bills while CEO Nick Sellers, Board chair Jonathan Porter, and their leadership team, shuttle around hat in hand seeking money to pay them. Seeking to avoid bankruptcy. Which would really suck. Really, really suck. For all of us. (See: Jefferson County 2011, at the time the largest such municipal failure in U.S. history.)
It sucks, too, that in getting here—getting here for myriad reasons, almost all of which were beyond any single person’s or entity’s control—the magnitude of the hole was not expeditiously and fully conveyed to those with empowered to fill it. To those whom Sellers, and many others, now need to come through. Big time.
Read also: Birmingham allocates $5 million towards World Games debt.
Yes, the World Games was a gargantuan feat. One executed with minimal glitches and seismic successes. One for which there was no viable economic blueprint, no sensible model for an event few on this side of the pond had even heard of until a handful of local businessmen and then-Mayor William Bell sought it out eight years ago—at least not one in which the math added up.
Not one preventing the world from sneaking out the bathroom window before the waiter dropped the $60 million tab on the table.
Putting on these games was akin not just to simultaneously trying to build and fly a plane without an instruction manual. And with a crew that hadn’t flown a plane before. Not this plane, at least. Not a global plane comprising a multiplicity of events at many venues and complex opening and closing ceremonies produced at heights none involved had soared.
“There was no playbook,” Sellers told councilors yesterday. “There is one now.”
And yet, as Sellers and crew fully know now: They should have said something sooner, much sooner. They should have alerted city and business leaders not just that there would be a deficit (which they did) but as soon as it was clear the hole was deeper than expected—$14 million deep.
Read also: World Games dept: Who’s owed what
Hindsight has perfect vision, and what is seen often sucks.
“I deeply resent being left in the dark,” said Abbott.
“A lot of frustration was created,” shared Councilor Clinton Woods. “Whether there was an attempt to minimize or mislead, I don’t think we were shared the most accurate information at the time.”
“I want to apologize,” Sellers said. “I should have communicated more effectively, more directly to you.”
What didn’t suck was seeing this council assert itself, to see its nine members puff their chests, pound their fists on the dais, and scream: You should have told us. Figurately, of course. Only the slightly twisted part of me longs for the days when I watched city council meetings with a bowl of popcorn and a boxing scorecard because of the combustible relationship between the council and mayor.
The relationship between this mayor and council is as civil and respectful, and effective, as perhaps the city’s ever seen.
Read also: Any economic gains from World Games investment much enrich lives, too
The council’s powers are all but muted by limitations of the Mayor-Council Act of 1995, yet they remain on the frontlines, the first line of contact with residents in their respective districts, the first to hear concerns and complaints. Especially when an entity is getting $5 million when a resident’s trash isn’t being picked up timely, when their street is rife with blighted properties, potholes, and gunfire.
Woods’ passion is typically understated yet clear. He said what transpired, what got them here, was unacceptable for the council.
“I feel like we got the [deficit] information last,” he said. “We need to be able to share what [the city is] doing and why. When we’re in the dark we’re in a terrible situation out there telling residents what we believe to be the truth.
“When they see how quickly we can come up with $5 million, it creates a level of frustration. We get hit with any and everything. In order to most effectively run the city, the public has to have faith in us—telling them the truth when we say we can’t give them what they want. We can say we didn’t know, but they see it as we should have known. They see it as a World Games versus the neighborhoods discussion. That is not the case. We got to do a better job.”
Abbott and council member Carol Clarke cast the lone ‘no’ votes as the council approved the expenditure 7 to 2.
“It’s great,” Woods added, sprinkling a dash of rare levity on the day, “we had conversations and disagreed, and for everybody to still be speaking to each other afterward.”
It still sucks to be here, to be left with a $14 million tab—in light of what will all but certainly be an eventual net positive for the city. A solid landing.
Said Councilor Darrell O’Quinn: “The World Games was absolutely a success for the city of Birmingham, a tremendous feat and I commend the organizing committee for being able to pull it off. I don’t want that to get lost in today’s conversation.
“Also, it’s not over. The World Games was just a tool to level the city up, advance our game and increase our earning potential. That didn’t stop on July 17. We need to keep building on that.”
With the new playbook, as expensive it was. And as much as it, well, you know.
More by Roy S. Johnson
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Until execution officials prove they can kill responsibly, Alabama should halt lethal injections
When BIll Russell stopped blocking my shot
Internships matter, so they should reflect all of us.
She left Birmingham for entertainment industry, returned so other youth may not have to
The future of the Magic City Classic? It’s a no-brainer
Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Morrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register. Reach him at rjohnson@al.com, follow him at twitter.com/roysj, or on Instagram @roysj.
Updated at 11:17 a.m. Aug. 24 to correct who voted against the expenditure. Updated at 6:25 p.m. Aug. 24 to give the correct vote count among council members.
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