BJCC and Birmingham officials discuss Westin project

By Jonathan Hardison

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - One step forward and another step back for the proposed new hotel and entertainment district in downtown Birmingham.

The city council's finance and economic development committees voted today to support extending 2 taxes for another 30 years to help pay for the project, but they and the BJCC board raised a lot of questions about who would have final say in the project's details.

Tuesday, the council will vote on whether it would agree to extend parts of the lodging and occupational tax to help pay for the $70 million project.

But that funding only comes if the city and the BJCC can agree on what goes into the agreement about on who "calls the shots."

In a rare joint meeting, some of the BJCC board came to the council's budget and economic development meeting to talk about the proposed 4-star Westin hotel and Marketplace project. But even before the handshakes had been made, BJCC board member and Jefferson County Commission president Bettye Fine Collins turned the meeting on its head by voicing her concerns over a proposed agreement between the BJCC and the city that none of the councilors or even Mayor Bell had seen.

The agreement worked out between the city and BJCC attorneys labeled a "working document" that the council saw Monday would give the mayor and 1 person from the BJCC almost total control over who would get all of the work related to the project, including who would sell the bonds to fund it.

That is a nonstarter for both the BJCC board and the council.

"I'm not going to agree to a 2-person committee to do anything," city Councilor Steven Hoyt said. "I think that's a monoply and this is a democracy, so we wanna make sure we have the proper representation."

"That was something that I did not request and I don't know who put that in there," Mayor Bell said. "I would be comfortable by having a bid process and taking that way from anyone making any decisions independent."

Bell told the council and a later meeting of the BJCC board that he didn't want that kind of control and would prefer a compromise be worked out.

The board would own and manage the new project, and by law, it would have final say over all of its contracts. But the board and Hoyt seemed to agree that a committee that includes 5 BJCC members, the mayor, and 1 city councilor would give everyone a say and be small enough to make the day-to-day decisions of what will be a multi-year project.

"The key thing to leave this meeting with is the fact that we both want what's good for the city and for the Convention Center," said Clyde Echols, Jr., chair of the BJCC's board. "We need hotel inventory, this is a very viable project, we'll work through this. The devil's in the details as always."

There are several other issues about this proposed agreement that the BJCC or the council don't like, so it's going back to the drawing board.

The council will vote Tuesday on whether to extend the taxes to pay for this project, but none of that money will come out of city hall until this is finalized.

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