Debate over George Ward Park dominates meeting; item delayed two weeks, public input meetings pending

Cred: City of St. Petersburg, MLB “Play Ball”

Following a thorough discussion, the Council unanimously passed a two-week delay on the item dealing with a plan for the Major League Baseball Youth Foundation (MLBYF) to construct and operate a youth baseball academy at George Ward Park.

At the beginning of the meeting Council President Pro Tem William Parker read an email from a MLBYF representative indicating that the organization would be re-evaluating the plans to invest $10 million at the park.

“Major League Baseball would like to thank the City of Birmingham and the Parks and Recreation Board for their hard work during this process,” Parker said, reading an email from a MLB representative. “At this time, we are going to reassess our position relative to an [MLBYF academy] at George Ward Park and will remain open to other site options within the city.”

He followed by saying, “this is a sad day for Birmingham when we let a few people decide what’s best for this city’s youth…We’re going to continue to have communications with Major League Baseball but this is obviously a setback. This whole project is about giving our young people an opportunity to participate in the academy and educational components that would come with that.”

A photo of George Ward Park, Cred: Chuck Neese

Parker said he believes that the outcry from the residents in the neighborhood was a factor in MLB reassessing the location of the potential youth academy.

Prior to the meeting, the item appeared to be set for approval with a majority of the council supporting the resolution. However, that changed moments before the meeting when Parker received the email from a MLB representative who has been involved with the project. This kicked off a lengthy debate that touched on the real and perceived acts of racism in Birmingham and what city leaders can do to keep MLB at the table.

The youth academy would be the first of its kind in Alabama.

The issue, some councilors explained, is that opposition seems to be coming from a predominately white neighborhood not wanting to share a park with an organization that would be focusing on minority outreach. Residents argued that their issue stemmed from a lack of communication about the project that city leaders said has been in the works “for several years.”

“At the end of the day it’s about the young people and having a constructive environment to make them into productive citizens. MLB certainly has that,” Councilor Steven Hoyt said. “The intention was to empower young people who have not had exposure, black and Latino children. This is an indictment against our children.”

A visibly frustrated Mayor Randall Woodfin, said he was disappointed with the discourse that had taken place about the proposed project. “I thought cooler heads would prevail. I thought this conversation had calmed down,” Woodfin said. “I’ll try and make this short. I’ve received a lot calls and emails about this. I hear the word ‘our,’ over 100 times. Anyone who is comfortable using that language is missing the picture. The Friends of George Ward Park thinks it’s their park and if the park board wants to deed over the park to them, they will have no push back from me.”

Eventually, concerned residents took to the podium to express their frustrations with being “left in the dark” about the proposed youth academy and insisted their opposition was not racially motivated.

As the discussion wound to a close, an agreement was made to set a public meeting with neighborhood residents to dispel any misinformation they might have about the scope of the project and what areas of the park would be impacted. One such example was that the youth academy would encompass 20 acres of the 120-acre park, not half like some residents had believed.

City officials and residents did not set a time or location for the meeting, but it is expected to take place before the resolution comes back before the Council on March 19.

“I’m always an optimist,” Parker said. “Let’s work together to accomplish the goal we all want and that is to make sure this academy stays in Birmingham and residents feel as though they’ve had an opportunity to be heard. Moving forward, we are going to work together.”

This is a developing story and more information will be published when it becomes available.



Tweets from The Birmingham City Council in Birmingham, Alabama

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