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How The World Games 2022 Will Forever Change Birmingham, AL

By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times

After years of planning, months of preparation, and weeks of international conference and Zoom calls, Birmingham is ready for the World.

All eyes are on the Magic City for The World Games 2022 (TWG 2022), an event that has the potential to transform Birmingham and its perception not just this summer but for decades to come, say city and area leaders.

“There is a rare moment in any city’s history, when it is afforded [the opportunity] to add another chapter to who [it is],” Mayor Randall Woodfin said of TWG 2022, which will take place from July 7 through 17. “[This event] literally adds a new page and additional chapters in the book of who [Birmingham is] as a community. … We get to put on and showcase how beautiful we are, how far we’ve come. … And it’s going to send a ripple because it’s not just about Alabama, the Southeast, America—we’re talking about globally.”

Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight said, “We know about the historical perceptions of Birmingham, and I think Mayor Woodfin has said it best: ‘Let’s live for the future.’ We’re not going to forget our past, but we have evolved. … When a lot of people talk about Birmingham, the images that come to mind are [black-and-white photos from the 1960s], but we’re more than that. … That’s not who we are today.”

The games haven’t even begun, and people are taking notice of the new Birmingham. CondéNast Traveler magazine recently named the Magic City one of the world’s top destinations to visit in “The 22 Best Places to Go in 2022.”

One reason is undoubtedly TWG 2022, which is expected to draw athletes from around the globe. The games will take place at various venues across the Birmingham metro area—including Protective Stadium, Legion Field, the Birmingham CrossPlex, the Hoover Met Complex, Oak Mountain State Park, and Barber Motorsports Park—and have an estimated $256 million in economic impact.

According to the TWG 2022 website (twg2022.com), the event “is an extraordinary, international sports event held every four years, in the year following each Summer Olympic Games. Staged over 11 days, [it] represents the pinnacle of competition for 3,600 of the world’s best athletes in 30+ unique, multi-disciplinary sports.

Featured sports include competitions in billiard games, archery, and dance, among others.

“For people coming from overseas to America, this is their opportunity to see Birmingham, see the United States. … We want to leave a great impression that they can go and then spread back to their countries,” said Knight. “That’ll really put a feather in our cap in the long term.”

David Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, said outsiders will get a chance to see a city that locals “know and love.”

“This is an international, multisport event that’s really going to be an entree for the world to see the great Birmingham we know and love,” he said. “This is going to be a chance for Birmingham to really show what we have to offer and lead to other multisport international events in the future, such as the World Police and Fire Games, which [will be hosted by the city] in 2025.”

“Incredible City”

(Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

When people from around the globe arrive this summer, they land at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, which has undergone more than $7 million worth of improvements.

“What an incredible city we have with incredible history,” said Ron Mathieu, president and CEO of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. “It seems like there’s something historic at every corner of Birmingham … if you take the time to understand it and to see it.”

Improvements at the airport are manifold. For example, all passenger loading bridges will be refreshed with new carpeting and fresh paint; all terminal seating will be replaced to optimize passenger comfort and capacity; new Wi-Fi and cell phone transmitters will be installed throughout the terminal to increase cellular and wireless ranges; and all restrooms are being renovated.

Mathieu is paying attention to details large and small to “make sure everything is the way it should be.”

“[There will be] new striping on the roadways, new lighting for the crosswalks. The garage is going to have new LED lighting system all around it so we can light it up in recognition of whatever the event is—whether it’s pink, whether it’s blue, in fact, in full World Games. [The garage] will be illuminated all around with the different colors of the International World Games Association,” the airport CEO said.

Once inside the city, visitors will have several transportation options. The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority’s Birmingham Xpress will run roughly 10 miles from Five Points West through downtown Birmingham to Woodlawn, connecting 25 city neighborhoods. The system consists of two transit centers and 16 stops in between. Buses will run at 15-minute intervals during peak periods.

City Walk BHAM

Everyone is finding a way to pitch in. The city of Birmingham is using $5 million in American Rescue Plan funds to procure various equipment needs for various departments—including Birmingham Fire and Rescue, the Birmingham Police Department, the Boutwell Auditorium, the Birmingham CrossPlex—to repair and upgrade to facilities citywide.

Nick Sellers, CEO of TWG 2022, pointed to numerous downtown entertainment district additions, as well as the new City Walk BHAM beneath Interstate 20-59, which will have everything from beer and wine gardens to dog parks.

“[City Walk BHM] is going to be an incredible gathering place. It’s also going to be home to our region’s World Games Plaza, and that is going to be the heartbeat of [TWG 2022],” he said. “I really believe that part of the legacy of these World Games will be that we as a community will build more self-confidence in who we are.”

City Walk BHAM will feature recreational, art, and green spaces situated on 31 acres, from 15th Street North to 25th Street North. The area, comprised of 10 city blocks, will include recreational sports space, a regional skate park facility, performance space, water features, market spaces, and public art.

Not far from City Walk BHM is Protective Stadium—the $180 million open-air athletic field with 45,000 seats that serves as the home field for the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers football team—which will host the grand opening and closing ceremonies for TWG 2022. Trees are being placed around the stadium as part of a beautification project.

Protective Stadium recently hosted the sold-out TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl between Auburn University and the University of Houston that left an economic impact that could be precursor to the World Games, according to city leaders.

“When you look at the number of people that stayed in our hotels, the number of people that visited our restaurants and bars, were here for multiple days, visited our museums and went shopping, in and around the area, I just think it has a tremendous impact for our city overall, the amount of taxes and economic impact,” Woodfin said.

Also nearby is the newly renovated 18,000-seat Legacy Arena on the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center campus with a new suite level, an upper-level club area, enhanced food and beverage options, new seating, a 360-degree ribbon board in the seating bowl, and refurbished lobbies.

Local Benefits

World Games mural. Oak Mountain State Park. (Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now.)

Locals are sure to reap some of the benefits from TWG 2022. Small businesses, such as food trucks and startups, will have the opportunity to be in the spotlight when visitors come into the city.

“Small business is the bloodline of Birmingham,” said Kathy Boswell, vice president of community engagement for TWG 2022. “With the games coming, our businesses will be able to single-handedly be placed in the spotlight.”

Residents who live in proximity to Protective Stadium are excited for what the games mean to them and the city. Edward Eaton, acting vice president of the Druid Hills Neighborhood Association, agreed that the event could help reverse the outdated view that outsiders have of Birmingham.

“That stigma is still attached to [the city]—the bombings, the race relations, and stuff like that—but we totally have turned that around quite a bit, … and people have to see it for themselves to actually have something to compare it with,” he said.

James Sullivan, former president of the Central City Neighborhood Association, said visitors will see that the city has more to offer than what happened in its past: “There is diversity, and people actually talk. … They’re going to see people talking happily. [They’re going to see] growth and development. It will be a welcoming experience.”

Woodfin said he understands why residents are excited.

“People from around the world will descend upon our community and city, and they will get to see who we are. That should excite every single human being that’s a citizen of this city,” the mayor said. “It’s a reset button. Ask Atlanta, [Georgia, Summer Olympics] 1996. Ask [Los Angeles, California, Summer Olympics] 1984. The last time the World Games was in America, it was held in [Santa Clara, California, in 1981]. This is an amazing opportunity.”

Birmingham Times staff writers Ryan Michaels and Haley Wilson contributed to this article.

Updated at 2:58 p.m. on 1/6/2022