By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
In the heart of downtown sits the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), a sports, convention, and entertainment facility that has attracted millions of people to the Magic City in the past decade, said BJCC Authority Executive Director and CEO Tad Snider.
“Whether they’re here for a concert, a Broadway show, a meeting for their company, a consumer [event], or some type of function related to the BJCC, well over a million people have come through every year,” Snider said. “Every city of any size has all these venues, [but] they’re not all clustered together in one central area like we are, so that is unique.”
With plans that will transform the complex, the city, and the region, the BJCC is now preparing for millions more to come through Birmingham.
“We’re looking at renovating our 43-year-old arena, adding a football stadium to the mix of venues that make up the BJCC and laying the groundwork to take that successful building and position it to be even more successful for another 40 years,” Snider said during a recent tour of the grounds.
The 45,000-seat, $174 million Protective Stadium will soon dominate the eastern edge of the BJCC campus in downtown Birmingham; it will be located between 22nd and 24th streets north, right across from the Uptown Entertainment District and adjacent to the Topgolf event venue. The architect, Kansas City-based Populous, has designed more than 150 college stadiums, and the one for Birmingham incorporates that experience.
“I think the stadium is going to be an asset to the community, but Birmingham has its own magic and its own energy,” said Snider, executive director and CEO since 2011. “These projects will complement all of that and create new opportunities in terms of sports and entertainment and convention business.”
Legacy Arena at the BJCC will close sometime next spring for renovations that include adding suite levels and club spaces, enhancing food and beverage facilities, and installing escalators and elevators. Both the stadium and arena are slated to be completed in the fall of 2021. Site work has already begun on the stadium, and construction bidding for both projects will happen later this year.
Several different events can be underway simultaneously at the BJCC. Snider pointed to next week’s Magic City Classic as one example.
“You get a nice cross section of … the community with different types of events. … Completely different consumers or people from our community can enjoy the complex at one time,” he said. “You can have [radio personalities] Tom Joyner and Rickey Smiley and their shows going on. … You could have a concert in the arena that has a demographic of maybe young, pop music [fans] but at the same time have a Broadway show at the concert hall with a different demographic of consumers.”
Between 900 and 1,000 events are held at the BJCC every year, with four to five events on an average day and about 10 to 12 events going on during the weekends.
“A meeting room with three people can count as one event or a concert hall with 15,000 people in it can count as one,” Snider said. “There’s a wide range of different sizes across those 900 or so events, but there is something going on here every day.”
In addition to bringing together different groups of people, all of these events have an economic impact of somewhere between $205 and $220 million a year, Snider said, “and that remains a pretty steady economic impact to the Birmingham area every year.”
The BJCC also creates hundreds of jobs. About 125 to 130 people work for the facility, and that doesn’t include part-time employees and contracts with services that employ people in the community for different events at the complex.
“Whether they work for our food-and-beverage provider, our event-staffing provider as a ticket taker or usher, our parking service, or whatever, on a busy weekend there are easily 1,000 people working here, especially if there is an arena event going on,” Snider said.
Conventions differ in number but easily account for about 30 to 35 percent of BJCC business every year.
“There are several of those a month, and they vary in size: there may be a local or statewide organization, such as a teacher’s union, or there may be regional or national groups,” said Snider. “Of course, we do a few national conventions, but the exciting thing is what’s happening in Birmingham overall. As [the city] moves itself to the next level through these investments, it elevates its profile, reputation, [and ability to attract] business.”
Arena Renovations and New Stadium
Renovations of Legacy Arena will occur in two parts: the interior and the exterior, said Snider. Some areas that didn’t exist in a building in the mid-‘70s, including different seating types, will be added.
“There will be a suite level of the building that doesn’t exist today. For people who don’t want to sit in their seats the whole time, there will be club spaces where they can watch games or concerts. There also will be enhanced food and beverage opportunities over what we have now,” Snider said, adding that the sound system will be replaced, and the flooring, color scheme, and seating will look different, too.
“We’re really kind of starting over, moving walls around, expanding, adding capacity. The entire service area for sports events or concerts will be reworked, even the loading dock will be different,” he said, noting that the arena’s refurbished lobby will have escalators and elevators to help visitors get in and out of the building quickly.
For the exterior of the building, there will be new add-ons, as well as a modernized glass-and-steel façade to bring it up to date, he said.
“The southwest side—the corner of 19th Street and 9th Avenue, where there is now a hill with some large trees—will become our new primary entrance,” he explained. “There also will be a pre-event plaza that will open up toward [City Walk BHAM].”
The proposed CityWalk BHAM will stretch for 10 blocks beneath the newly constructed Interstate 59/20, from 15th Street North to 25th Street North. The 31-acre space will provide better pedestrian connections to several downtown attractions and nearby institutions, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama School of Fine Arts, BJCC, and the soon-to-be-built Protective Stadium.
Designs for the stadium, which were recently presented to the BJCC board, incorporated additional details of the interior and exterior, as well as the 45,000-capacity seating plan. The stadium will include club spaces and special box seating and have a modern glass-and-steel façade to match Legacy Arena.
Just the Beginning
With a refurbished Legacy Arena and the new Protective Stadium, Snider believes this could all be just the beginning for the BJCC.
“We’re at the very infancy of this,” he said. “But a few years down the road, when construction is finished, events and activity are occurring, and some of the redevelopment that’s in the planning phases now becomes reality, every part of the North Birmingham corridor going up Carraway Boulevard will look completely different than it does today—in a way that really complements Birmingham.”
Primary funding for the Protective Stadium came from the BJCC Authority, the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County, Protective Life Corp., and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). That teamwork bodes well for the future of Birmingham said Snider and other area officials including Mayor Randall Woodfin.
“When you look at advancements in other cities, it’s all centered around the city’s ability to do joint public-private partnerships,” Woodfin said. “You show me a city that has successful projects around public-private partnerships, and I’ll show you a progressive city that people want to live in, play in, work in, and be in … because of its progress.”
Decades in the Making
1983 — Birmingham Barons owner Art Clarkson introduces idea of building a stadium.
1995 — Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr. has city staff evaluate potential sites for a new stadium to replace Legion Field.
1998 — Gene Hallman, president and CEO of Bruno Event Team and executive director of the Alabama Sports Foundation and Larry Lemak, renowned orthopedic surgeon, commission a study to determine what type of facility might suit Birmingham’s future needs. The result is the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy campaign which is intended to fund numerous capital projects in the area by increasing sales and lodging taxes across Jefferson County. The proposal is defeated in a countywide referendum.
2003 — A multi-purpose facility adjacent to the BJCC is incorporated into the City Center Master Plan contingent upon funding from the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County and the State of Alabama. The city agrees to the request, but the county, dealing with a sewer construction scandal, increasing debts and uncertainty about the future of the occupational tax, will not commit.
2007—The BJCC Authority, Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid and Jefferson County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins meet in Salt Lake City and vote unanimously to pursue a $505.5 million expansion, including $380 million for a 40,000 seat arena which could be used to provide 175,000 square feet of exhibition space. The agreement fizzles.
2007 — During the Birmingham mayoral election Larry Langford, the front runner, promises to make building a dome a priority. Once elected, Langford prepares a one-page summary of a plan to pay for a domed stadium and other projects known as the Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance (BERCO) which calls for a one-cent increase in local sales tax and a doubling of business license fees.
2008 — In March, Birmingham Business Leadership Group creates a panel to commission a study of three potential sites for a stadium: adjacent to the BJCC, Legion Field and the John Rogers Drive In June, the panel hires Atlanta-based Heery International and Texas-based Conventions, Sports and Leisure International to perform the study and a report, which favors the downtown site.
2008 – The BJCC Board approves a plan to interview potential architects for the project. The BJCC board receives inquiries from at least eight firms and a panel is chosen to narrow the list to two finalists. The board unanimously selects HOK Sport of Kansas City, Missouri to proceed with designs based on their renderings of a 57,500-seat arena.
2009 — The council approves Langford’s proposal to contribute $8 million per year to the BJCC board to help pay for design and engineering work, budgeted at $20 million. With the funding approved, the board enters into a contract with Populous-formerly HOK Sport- to assemble local partners and complete the design and construction documents.
2009 — Langford holds a ceremonial groundbreaking at which he suggested the arena floor be named for John Rogers.
2009 — Representatives from Populous interview local architecture firms and possible consultants and contractors. The BJCC planned to begin construction in the summer of 2010 with hopes of completing the project in time for a mid-2013 opening.
2009 — Saber Engineering and Schoel Engineering hired to complete topographic surveys and drainage plans of the site.
2010—Populous presents renderings of a 70,000 seat stadium with a projected cost of $375 million. However, some BJCC officials are resigned to the fact that insufficient revenues are available for the project.
2016 – A new master plan is unveiled by the BJCC Authority from Populous which includes a 45,000 seat open-air stadium adjoining the complex north of the Uptown district. The design allows for expansion to 55,000 seats and would serve the UAB Blazers and the Birmingham Bowl football game. The projected cost of the entire renovation project is nearly $300 million, of which $174 million is for construction of the stadium.
2017 — In his 2017 State of the City address Birmingham mayor William Bell alludes to a $200-225 million projected cost for an open air stadium and a $450 million-plus cost for an enclosed stadium, which he would prefer. His defeat in the 2017 Birmingham municipal election effectively ends those efforts.
2017 — The BJCC Authority projects being able to cover an additional $10.7 million per year from its own revenues to service new debt for improvements.
2018 — The Jefferson County Commission votes to commit to $1 million a year for 30 years as its contribution to debt service on the proposed new facility.
2018 – Newly elected Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin requests that the City Council commit $3 million a year for 30 years as an investment in revenue-generating infrastructure. The Birmingham City Council approves that proposal, with a stipulation that “revenues” from the BJCC expansion would go into a Birmingham Neighborhood Revitalization Fund.
2018 — UAB and corporate partners commit $4 million a year to the project, part of which includes leasing the stadium, along with sponsorship deals and naming rights.
2018 — Financing for the stadium and arena expansion is obtained through the BJCC’s sale of bonds.
2018 — Ground ceremonially broken for the new facility.
April, 2019 — Protective Life Corporation secures naming rights for the stadium for 15 years at a cost of $1 million per year.
June, 2019 — The site plan and conceptual design of the stadium are approved by the Birmingham Design Review Committee.
September, 2019 — Exterior materials and landscaping approved.