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Major League Baseball reassesses Academy at George Ward Park

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By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Calling it a “sad day” in the city of Birmingham, Councilor William Parker said Major League Baseball is now reassessing plans to locate a youth academy at Ward Park in the Glen Iris neighborhood of the Southside community.

The City Council on Tuesday delayed for two weeks voting on a resolution that would allow the MLB Youth Foundation to enter an agreement with the city to start a youth baseball and softball academy at the park. Last week, the council also delayed the item as well.

Glen Iris residents have voiced opposition saying the academy would use half the acreage in the 120-acre park, displace an existing New South Softball League and impact the dog park, the walking trails, the tennis courts and the disc-golf course.

However, none of that is true, according to the MLB. In a letter to Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, baseball officials wrote that, “MLB does not take the entire park. George Ward Park is approximately 115 to 125 acres in size. MLB would be reconfiguring approximately only 20 acres and . . . MLB Academy does not affect the dog park, the walking trails, the tennis courts or the disc-golf course.

“Part of the plan was for MLB to provide both full and part time jobs with the academy project. MLB will invest upwards of $10 million in construction costs. MLB annual operating costs will range from a quarter of a million to $1 million and an additional $7.5 million to $10 million over a 10 year term, not including two five-year options.”

Community Opposition

Still residents say they have been kept in the dark.

“The biggest problem this whole process has had is that communication stunk, said Hope Cooper, a resident of the Glen Iris neighborhood. “The very first rumor we heard was that all of George Ward Park was going to be sold to MLB . . . then it was dead silent for about two months and then the Park Board came out to the neighborhood meeting and said ‘put us on your January agenda, we need to talk to you about MLB and George Ward Park.’ This is not the way to win friends and influence people.”

Jennifer Coggin, a Glen Iris resident said, “I think a lot of this has been misinformation. A lot of it, I’m sorry, I’m going to put it on the Council because we were not informed in the neighborhood of what was going on. This has been going on, we’ve been told since 2015… but I 100 percent support the idea of the MLB Youth Academy. I think it’s a fantastic idea for the youth of this community but I think a lot of people want to put it down to black and white and it’s not… this community wants what’s best for the children but we want to be informed of it beforehand.”

The council delayed the vote to get more information to the public about the proposed plans for George Ward and also allow for additional locations such as Banks Middle School, Cooper Green Park, East Lake Park and other locations to be considered for the Academy.

That also gives MLB times to evaluate other locations in the city.

Parker, Council President Pro Tempore and chairperson of the council’s Park and Recreation committee, said he received an email from MLB officials prior to the Tuesday meeting that said in part “we are going to reassess our position relative to an MLB Youth Academy at George Ward Park and will remain open to other site options within the city.”

The council will vote on March 19 on the matter. If the council does vote to enter the agreement, the MLB Youth Foundation will provide $10 million to build the training facility and make other improvements to the park and provide free baseball and softball training leagues for Birmingham youth.

Councilors Take Sides

Parker said it was a sad day for Birmingham because the city and MLB may no longer be able to partner.

“We have the opportunity to have a relationship with Major League Baseball and it’s kind of out the window now, so it’s a sad day,” Parker said. “I think because of the residents that have some council members and have expressed an unwillingness to be supportive and to put the interest of the kids and the youth of our city above their interest, is just truly a sad day.”

Parker said the council was “failing our youth” and “there were council members who have expressed not approving this and not wanting MLB in their community and it’s just a sad day but we’ve got to pick up the pieces and move forward.”

Council President Valerie Abbott was among those who raised concerns saying George Ward Park may not be the best place for the Academy.

“There are currently thousands of current users that will be displaced by putting this operation at the park… George Ward Park is not centrally located to Birmingham… it is a dedicated city park and it is proposed to be taken for exclusive use by a single organization,” Abbott said, “the main complaint from people in the community is the fact that this was done with secrecy, the information was not communicated to the neighborhoods.

“The community has tried to get information and this has supposedly been going on for three years but the community was not involved up until the last couple of months and that’s not right. The citizen distrust and the lack of input, is the big issue here,” she said.

Parker wasn’t the only member of the panel saddened by the potential relocation.

“It is a disservice to our kids . . . and it really makes me sad because I really thought Birmingham was about moving forward and about bringing all races together because we are one city,” said Councilor Crystal Smitherman. “I’m just at a loss for words so hopefully we can consider other parks but the representative said word for word ‘if this neighborhood doesn’t want George Ward Park as the site for this academy, we will leave’ and that is exactly what they’re going to do.”

Councilor Stephen Hoyt said, “it’s about the young people and us providing a wholesome and very intentional environment that is conducive to them becoming productive citizens and I think Major League Baseball certainly brings that to communities where they’ve come in and made a difference.”

Hoyt said the academy offers more than baseball.

“We’re talking about tutoring and how they have an impact on children and they’re able to get scholarships and play professional ball… “Major League Baseball was bringing a $10 million initial investment to the table and they were and going to invest about $1 million a year in operational costs, creating jobs and opportunities for our youth.”

Next Steps

The full nine member council and members of the Parks and Rec board have agreed to set a meeting to discuss concerns with Glen Iris Neighborhood residents about the youth academy.

There is not an official time and location for the meeting, but is expected to happen before the council tries once again to vote on the issue on the 19th.

Parker remains optimistic and is hopeful something can be worked out with MLB.

“I just want to emphasize the importance of the opportunities for our young kids throughout the city of Birmingham to be able to have the opportunity to participate in the academy would have been huge,” said Parker. “We’ve been knocked down today but . . . we have an obligation to the youth and to the citizens and . . . make sure that we have a lot of opportunities for them and that’s what’s important.”