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Council spends $290K to bring Negro League Museum up to code  

Since its opening in 2015, nearly 20,000 people have visited the Negro Southern League Museum. (NSLM photo)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times 

The Birmingham City Council on Tuesday approved spending $290,000 to bring the Negro Southern League Museum up to code and allow Michael’s Steak and Seafood restaurant to move forward for a scheduled opening in the museum. 

The 8-1 vote came following a lengthy discussion and one day after a Budget and Finance Committee meeting where councilors learned the 4-year-old, $2.5 million NSLM is still not complete or up to code and has been open without a permanent certificate of occupancy.

Michael’s restaurant has shut its Homewood location to move in above the museum and is now being held up with original construction not being completed. 

Councilors had questions and concerns.

 “We spent $2.5 million on the museum, $1.5 on Michael’s and now we need $300,000 more to bring it up to code which we’ve been issuing temporary certificates of occupancy and we apparently inspected and passed the contractor as the continuing body of the city,” said Councilor Hunter Williams, who was the lone no vote. “I have a huge problem with this because I think this is a gross waste of tax payer dollars… it sounds like it was a failure at every point of this.” 

Councilor Steven Hoyt said he was concerned that someone would sign off on the building being occupied without all of the closing documents. 

 “I’m concerned that this building was signed off even to function as a museum and [then] to hear from [the planning, engineering and permits department] that we don’t have as-built drawings, that’s a part of the close out… How can you issue a permit if you don’t have the close out documents? We’re the owners, the city is the owners, all of the plans and drawings belongs to us, who would sign off not having received that?”

The museum has failing joists, leaks, a faulty elevator and malfunctioning HVAC which has forced the museum to close. Denise Bell, Deputy Director of Planning, Engineering and Permits, said at the time the building was constructed, it was built in a way the museum could function. 

“There were things left undone, unfinished or done in such a way that now we have to correct it . . . you have to support the entire structure now so we have to go back and do electrical and mechanical work and access to the roof,” Bell said.

Work on the building began in 2014 and was completed and opened in 2015 when an original building permit was issued as well as a temporary certificate of occupancy because the museum portion was completed, said Edwin Revell, Director of Planning, Engineering and Permits. 

Part of the problem, he said, is when the project was originally constructed and completed, there weren’t any as-built drawings and not having that information led to the recent discovery. “That’s probably the main challenge why we didn’t have that information because there wasn’t anything at the completion of the original project to give us an accurate accounting of what all was done,” he said.

When work began on the restaurant project city leaders found out there were some unfinished structures in the building, said Mayor Randall Woodfin. 

“When you combine the two buildings, part of this restaurant is upstairs and prior to this and to you all approving the project, none of the upstairs was used [in the museum] so there was no code or inspection to use upstairs because it was unoccupied,” said Woodfin. “When you build out the restaurant and you build out the two buildings, code says you have to have an elevator and part of this work of what you would be approving today is the actual completion of the museum not the restaurant, however if we don’t complete this, we can’t complete the restaurant.”

Councilor Clinton Woods, who has a background in construction, suggested that the council pass the item and asked the mayor to open a 30 day investigation of the matter. 

“I don’t see a scenario in which we don’t complete this project… something happened in this project and it doesn’t look right and I would look at a 30 day window  . . . the council may need to look at using those investigative powers,” said Woods. “It may not just be this project. It may be a wider scope of issues that we need to look at because just on the surface, there is the potential that something inappropriate took place.”

Councilor John Hilliard said the city has no choice but to complete the work on the building. “I think his suggestion on the 30 day window and investigation is warranted so that we can make sure this never happens again, but it would be derelict for us not to complete that building when we’ve already allocated over $1 million,” Hilliard said, “and the business has really expected for this opening day to have been done and they shut down their other business [in Homewood] just for this.

In another matter, the council also passed the new $1.8 million public safety agreement between the Birmingham Police Department and the Housing Authority Birmingham Division (HABD) for $1.8 million per year. 

Last week, HABD announced their Board of Commissioners had approved the contract with the police department. 

Under the proposed two-year contract, BPD would dedicate 14 officers, one sergeant and one lieutenant for all of HABD’s 14 public housing communities. There is language in the agreement for all officers to provide 24-hour policing at designated sites if deemed necessary by BPD, and police substations are also a possibility. 

Councilor Hoyt, who has been vocal about violence in the city’s public housing communities, applauded both parties for coming to a resolution. 

“I want to thank the mayor and the Chief Patrick smith and the housing authority, this new plan I think is a little bit more comprehensive than what I’ve seen in years past having been a manager of public housing for almost 20 years or so,” said Hoyt. “What is going to really work is when the officers get out of these cars and establish relationships with our children and residents and I think this provides for that but it needs to be on a continuum. … I think this is a great opportunity and even though I think it is late because I don’t know how many folks who have been killed in public housing recently but we shouldn’t have to wait until we have a crisis to make these kind of changes but nevertheless, I’m supporting it and I pray this works and I want to commend those responsible for putting this together…this is a good plan.”