By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
Midfield Mayor Gary Richardson experienced an epiphany in the spring of 2000.
His daughter April was graduating from Midfield High School. As he sat at the ceremony, he realized that after years of political influence through his Birmingham radio talk show he had never been involved in the city where he lived.
“At that moment, I decided I was going to run for mayor,” said Richardson, 59, owner of WJLD-AM 1400, where he also is an on-air radio personality. “I said there’s a need to have this place organized.”
Richardson lost his initial bid for mayor of Midfield but was undeterred and was elected to the office in 2004.
In November 2016, the man who also works as technology coordinator of Bessemer City Schools, began his fourth term leading his city. He also just finished his second term as president of the Jefferson County Mayors Association, for which 10 members were unseated this year, including the mayors of Hoover, Vestavia Hills, and Trussville.
“There have been a lot of shakeups, a lot of changes,” Richardson said. “But Midfield has remained steady and stable with leadership.”
Midfield, located southwest of Birmingham and within a 10-minute drive of a quarter-million people, was a majority white city when Richardson began his first term. Now it is about 80 percent black with a population of 5,326.
Midfield is divided by the Bessemer Superhighway and is partly bordered to the north by Interstate 20/59. Like its neighboring municipalities, it has experienced some difficult days with the loss of revenue from the shrinking impact of the U.S. Steel Corp.
“We weathered the storm by simply working together,” Richardson said. “We didn’t air our dirty laundry. We didn’t have people trying to exploit the city for personal gains. Developers don’t want to come anywhere that it is perceived that the government is unstable.”
According to Mayor Richardson—who proudly says his home phone number is published and his cell number is available to all—Midfield has fully staffed police and fire departments, a full public-works crew, a new fire engine, new police vehicles, and a fully functional public library. And Birmingham transit buses, which simply passed through Midfield years ago, now stop in the city.
Midfield’s finances are also on the upswing. Compared with last year’s budget, the city has experienced 23 percent growth in revenue. Midfield is moving forward, Richardson said, because he and the council members have invited businesses to town.
“We’ve actually gone out and recruited businesses,” he said. “We didn’t just sit back and wish that businesses would come our way. We actually went out and got those businesses.”
The city has 95 percent occupancy in its retail and business district: Cato Fashions and Sav-A-Lot grocery are among the most recent businesses the city has attracted. The key is determining what developers want and matching those desires to what Midfield offers, the mayor said.
Richardson cited ongoing discussions in Birmingham, where some city council members prefer a five-star hotel to the Comfort Inn and Suites slated to be built near the Birmingham CrossPlex: “The five-star doesn’t want them. You’ve got to come to the realization that it’s about matchups. Once you get that perfect marriage, you’ve got new businesses, you’ve got growth.”
Midfield had hoped to establish its own housing authority to put more residences in place. The plan fizzled, however, when the federal government declared that it is not permitting any more such authorities. But Midfield, teaming up with neighboring Fairfield and Brighton, has set its sights on establishing a land bank authority. None of the cities has the required 1,000 vacant properties to set up its own land bank, but together they can.
“We’re looking at working with those individuals,” Richardson said. “All of us coming together to enhance our communities and get rid of eyesores, but also put those abandoned properties back into the market.”
While Richardson is a fervent promoter of his city, he is also a cheerleader for his neighboring municipalities. While Fairfield and Brighton have had their well-publicized challenges, Midfield’s mayor is rooting for each to succeed behind young, progressive leadership.
“All of us are in this together, whether we realize it or not,” Richardson said. “If our other cities are viable, vibrant cities, it actually helps us. It does me no good to say Midfield is doing great and everybody else around me is doing bad. Anything I can do to help enhance them, to lift up their quality of life also helps me in my community.”
Richardson says he remains committed to continually enhancing his city, as well. The day he can’t make progress in Midfield is the day he’ll leave office, he said.
“I got into this office to effect change, and I will continue to work toward that end,” he said. “We’re always striving to do more.”
Origin of Name: Always known as Midfield since community started in the late 1920s by Alandale Land Company.
Population: 5,326 people, 1,999 households, and 1,398 families residing in the city.
Median Household Income: $39,275.
Government: Mayor/Five-member City Council.