By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Bessemer Mayor Ken Gulley is not one to complain. When he was dissatisfied with the direction of the city a decade ago, he had a choice: “I can either sit around and complain about it or I can do something about it,” he recalled saying to himself.
Gulley prayed about what to do and after some contemplation decided to see how the citizens would feel about him as mayor. He received 73 percent of the vote in the 2010 runoff against then-incumbent Mayor Ed May.
“I took that as a mandate to get started and change the direction the city was going in at that particular time,” he said during a recent interview in the third-floor conference room at City Hall in downtown Bessemer. “I had prayed about it, and I felt like it was what God wanted me to do. The rest is history.”
Gulley had no idea what was in store when he took the reins as mayor in November 2010. When he assumed office, the city was about $20 million in debt, owing millions of dollars in property taxes and other debts to the Bessemer City School system, Jefferson County, and myriad local vendors.
“We couldn’t get parts for vehicles. We were had a cash-and-carry [agreement with] Walmart. It was, unfortunately, that bad,” he said. “I contemplated at that time whether to file bankruptcy, but I didn’t want to put that stigma on the city. So, I sat down and looked at all of our creditors, then I got on the phone to see if I could set up some arrangements to pay quarterly.”
Gulley met with the local school board and others to reach settlements.
“We just rolled up our sleeves and saw where we could legally pull dollars from to pay off these debts,” he said.
In three years, Gulley and his staff were able to pay off most of what was owed.
“I was able to reallocate funds and eliminate waste,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had to let some people go and lay some people off, which were very hard decisions, but we were able to go back and offer some of those jobs back about a year later.”
Even while reducing the debt, Gulley was in the process of recruiting companies to the city. In 2011, Dollar General opened a distribution facility. And in 2013, Milo’s began a major expansion.
Gulley also invested in the downtown area: “We’ve done streetscape projects, upgraded the sidewalks and lighting. We are preparing downtown for those things we want to see,” he said. “At one time, we had 22 new businesses that relocated downtown. That is important to me because I like to see a thriving downtown.
“We’ll definitely see more upgrades . . . , and we continue to aggressively pursue companies we want to come downtown. We look at it from a standpoint that if we continue to build it, then they will come. We engaged the engineering firm STRADA to help us with our downtown redevelopment, … and we’re continuing to keep trying everything we can.”
Amazon opened a distribution facility in the city earlier this year, creating more than 1,500 jobs. FedEx recently announced plans to construct a new $40 million distribution facility on the border of Birmingham and Bessemer. Carvana is currently building a $40 million distribution center on Morgan Road. The second and third phases of construction of the city’s Rail-Trail project is underway.
Even with the COVID-19 pandemic putting stress on many municipalities, Gulley said Bessemer has been able to avoid draconian measures.
“We have not had to furlough people or lay off anyone,” he said. “A fortunate and unfortunate thing is that a lot of our tax base is built on sales tax, … so even with the loss of a lot of small retailers, we were able to maintain with our big-box stores like Lowe’s, Walmart, and Publix. … Our sales tax and revenue increased because those places were still open, so we did not take a big hit with our sales tax and were able to maintain.”
The city of Bessemer, founded in 1887, is located 16 miles southwest of Birmingham and has a population of a little more than 27,000 people. It was built on iron and steel and became known as an industrial city.
“It grew itself so fast, so that is where the name ‘The Marvel City’ actually comes from,” said Gulley. “People marveled at the success and how fast it grew and how powerful of a city it could be.”
Given the iron ore, coal, and limestone deposits in the area, the city became a center of steelmaking from about 1890 through the 20th century. It attracted rural migrants from across the South, as well as European immigrants. As time went on, the industry went through considerable restructuring and jobs moved out of the area. By the 1980s, the city was in near depression.
“Pullman Standards, which employed so many of the residents of Bessemer and the surrounding areas, closed and put everybody in and around the city out of work. Unemployment went up to about 36 percent in the city,” Gulley said. “That’s why I’m so glad to see Bessemer redefine itself and come back as an industrial and manufacturing type of city.”
Gulley was born and raised in Forkland, Alabama, a town in Greene County. He is a graduate of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU) in Normal, Alabama.
“My wife, Yvonne, is a native of Bessemer, and that is how I got here,” Gulley said. “After finishing at [AAMU] about 25 years ago, I moved to the city of Bessemer, and it became my home. I worked in city government and developed a love for Bessemer.”
Gulley, 52, served as the chief of staff for Mayor Quitman Mitchell, the first African American mayor of Bessemer, from 1994 to 2002.
“One of the things I recognized, even back then, was that Bessemer was so rich in resources,” Gulley said. “It was a city unlike many cities in America of its size because it was self-sustaining, it had everything. You rarely see a city that has its own water source. You rarely see a city that has its own utility company. We have our own courthouse, our own airport, entertainment, a city center, our own golf course. … Bessemer has always been a city that punches way above its weight, and that’s what makes you love Bessemer and pull for it because very few cities have all of these things right here.”
While working at Lawson State Community College in 2010 of as coordinator of auxiliary services, Gulley decided to enter the mayor’s race.
“At the time, I served on so many boards: I was the first African American chairman of the board for the Bessemer Area Chamber of Commerce; I served on the Red Cross board and so many others. I got so active when it had come to sitting on boards for the city of Bessemer, and I developed such a love for the city,” he said.
Gulley was elected with 73 percent of the vote in 2010, 60 percent in 2014, and 68 percent in 2018. The past 10 years have been a renaissance for the city, though he doesn’t know whether he’ll be mayor 10 years from now.
“Whether I am here or not, I would like to see a thriving city, a city that is moving forward with the foundation I’ve laid,” he said. “I would like to see more companies recruited to the city. I would like to see the downtown revitalization. Bessemer has so much potential that I want whoever sits in this seat to be able to see and appreciate what I’ve been able to see and appreciate. We’ve done much, but we recognize that there is still much to be done.”
Gulley admits that the past 10 years haven’t been easy.
“With all of the challenges we’ve had, I’m confident that I’m where God wants me to be,” he said. “God gives so few people the opportunity to sit where I sit and to have sat for the last 10 years. Your legacy is up to you, and I hope whoever sits here 10 years from now will have the same passion for the people and the same love for the city that I have, and that they can pick up the baton from here, move forward, and continue to take Bessemer to the next level.”