By Michael Tomberlin
It’s not the first time a groundbreaking has been held for a new stadium next to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, but officials on Thursday vowed it’s the last one.
“This is my third groundbreaking for this facility,” said Valerie Abbott, president of the Birmingham City Council. “This one is going to stick. The reason is because of teamwork.”
That teamwork was evident as leadership from Birmingham, Jefferson County, the Alabama Legislature, UAB and corporate leaders joined together to break ground on the $175 million stadium on the east side of the BJCC.
Tad Snider, CEO and executive director of the BJCC, said this groundbreaking was different.
“We’re actually moving forward this time,” he said. “Yes, it’s a groundbreaking. Yes, we’ve done this before. But it’s the first time money has been in the bank.”
The stadium is expected to be completed in time for the opening ceremonies of the World Games in summer 2021. Later that year, UAB will begin playing its home football games in the venue. Other sporting events and entertainment productions are also expected to be held there.
“Having a stadium like this is so great for the fans,” said Mark Ingram, UAB athletic director. He said the facility builds on the momentum of the football team winning the Conference USA title this year and helps in recruiting both students and student athletes to UAB.
The current design is for a stadium with seating for up to 55,000. Officials said the design will be tweaked up until vertical construction begins.
Dr. Ray Watts, president of UAB, said the stadium will have an even bigger role to play for the entire region.
“This stadium will be the home stadium for the UAB Blazers but on 350 some-odd other days, it’s going to be a great attribute for the city of Birmingham,” he said. “This is going to be finest facility of its kind in the state of Alabama. And with the renovation of the arena and the entire complex, I, too, believe that this is probably the most important economic development project in the city of Birmingham today.”
That’s what Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin likes to hear.
“When we look at other cities and when they invest in big things like this, this is a positive economic development ripple for commercial development as well as residential development for not only this area, but for other areas of town,” Woodfin said. “People need to look for our city to continue to be intentional about commercial development and residential development throughout our entire city.”
Snider believes those ripples will come but he acknowledged a challenge will be managing the construction of the stadium, the $123 million renovation and expansion of Legacy Arena and other BJCC upgrades and renovation of the Sheraton Birmingham – all while the massive bridge replacement project of Interstate 59/30 through downtown takes place.
“These are two big cornerstone projects and the ability to make some upgrades and investment to the existing convention center,” Snider said. “It’s a gamechanger for everybody.”
He said the 2019 event calendar at the BJCC is full and that it will be important to communicate to the public that the BJCC will continue to operate and the businesses at Uptown Entertainment District and Topgolf will continue to stay open and need the support of customers.
“We need to keep doing what we do so it feeds them as well,” Snider said.
Woodfin said the stadium will stand as a testament to what is possible when the different entities in the metro area work together.
“This is transformational,” he said. “This groundbreaking represents so many things, but the biggest thing it represents is what happens when cooperation works.
“I am just so happy for Birmingham,” he added. “I am happy for our region. This is a big moment for us.”
Jimmie Stephens, president of the Jefferson County Commission, shared in the optimism.
“I can’t think of a better time or a better place than right now to live in Jefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama,” he said. “The future is so bright.”
While the focus is on the future, those like Abbott couldn’t help but look back.
“I was in my 20s when we first started talking about this,” she said of the stadium. “So, we have waited a long, long time.”