We Need a “Program” for the Good Guys

“Hey, get your program.  Hey, programs here.  How you gonna know the players without a program?”

I can recall that refrain echoing across the bleachers at Rickwood Field in those not-so-long-ago days when true baseball giants to-be were just the ordinary guys in the Birmingham line-up.  They were the A’s then.  Pitchers like Raleigh Fingers, “Catfish” Hunter and “Blue Moon” Odom; an outstanding catcher by the name of Gene Tenace; did Reggie Jackson really play here?  The possibility of an autograph always lingered in the warm summer air, mixed with the smell of those hot dogs and the little diced onions at the Rickwood Field concesion stands.

And so the point about the programs was well-made by the vendor.  In any sport, how are you going to know the names of the players unless you have a program?  Perhaps we could take something from that and apply it here, today, on 20th Street.  Of course, some players routinely get their names in “the program” (for purposes of this exercise, we’ll call it the newspaper) and the news isn’t always good.  Former Governors, former CEOs and former local elected officials – all get their names in the program and we are left to follow the game – discouraged.

Today I’m offering up the names of a few additional players who really need to be in the Birmingham line-up.  These are leaders who are doing amazing things every day for our community and region – positive things that don’t get “in the program” nearly often enough.  Three are veterans and one is a rookie.  Two have been around the ballpark for a good while.  One was just traded back to the team.  A fourth (really two players in one, but I’ll explain that in a minute) have been here for a couple of years but still aren’t that well know.

First the rookie.

Drew Langloh is the newly-appointed CEO at United Way of Central Alabama.  And while certainly not a “rookie” to his position, he’s nonetheless new (again) in Birmingham.  You don’t get to be the CEO of one of the largest and most successful/effective United Way organizations in the country by being a rookie.  But to us, Drew is still somewhat new.  He was here several years before in a staff position, then moved away, learned the charitable giving business from the inside out and now he’s back and the community stands ready to help him help the agency succeed.  He’s an exciting new, young leader in our community.

His organization helps address the financial and programatic needs of more than 80 social service organizations every day.  This is a volunteer-based agency of agencies that operates on 9-cents out of every dollar they take in from donors.  Don’t you wish your balance sheet looked like that?  When you combine the effectiveness of United Way of Central Alabama with the heart of giving in this community, success is predictable.  That doesn’t mean the work is easy.  But it is part of the reason why United Way of Central Alabama has never missed a campaign goal – not even in the toughest years of the Great Depression.  It’s also why Drew Langloh is a player who deserves a spot in the community’s line-up and more than occasional mention in the program.

A new team in our region is the husband-wife combo of Bill and Michelle Heintz.  If you’ve not met this dynamic couple and you want to change your life, take a drive to downtown Bessemer and (after you’ve eaten lunch at the Bright Star) wander down 18th Street to between 7th and 6th Avenues North.  You’ll be in the epicenter of Bill and Michelle’s world – which is becoming more well-known with each passing day.  The operation is called The Foundry – a relatively new name, but one that is making a difference.  Bill and Michelle are players because they have a heart for men and women who need help recovering from destructive lifestyles – particularly from drug or alcohol abuse.  The Foundry now includes a food service center and dining hall, dorms for men and women residents who are in some phase of the usual 12-to-18-month recovery program, an auto repair and restoration center, a church chapel, administrative buildings.  Parts of four city blocks in downtown Bessemer have been revitalized because of this outreach and every day they field a team of their own residents to work in the community and to give back to the folks who first gave to them.  There’s a case to be made for getting this two-person team in the program a lot more.

As a veteran in social service to the community, you’d be hard pressed to find someone with more “game time” than Tony Cooper.  As the Executive Director of the Jimmie Hale Mission and Jessie’s Place, Tony administers the operations of one of the better-recognized brands in Birmingham.  The mission has a wonderful history (dating to 1944) of helping men and women recover the pieces of their broken lives and make them useful again.  In the past year, Tony has engineered a move of the mission’s Shepura Men’s Center from the old location across from the 25th Street Post Office to new/restored quarters just across the tracks at 2nd Avenue North and 35th Street.  So what qualifies Tony Cooper to be in the program more?  Lots of things really – too many to mention here in fact, but one stat puts it all into perspective.  They serve nearly 9,000 meals a month to people who, for wahtever reason, need a meal.  And their programs are based on helping people stablize their lives.

And finally, a very familiar name in a new job.  As Chairman and CEO of Energen, Mike Warren had already achieved star player status.  His other contributions to our state, such as chairing the Business Council of Alabama, Leadership Alabama and Leadership Birmingham, and twice successfully leading the local United Way campaign, gave him well-deserved entre to exposure in the “good guy” program.  But at the peak of his career, Mike took on another job and he’s knocking home runs again.

Founded in 1911, Children’s Hospital of Alabama (part of the Children’s Health System) is one of the ten businest pediatric medical centers in the United States and it is the only free-standing hospital in Alabama dedicated solely to the care and treatment of children.  When he was named CEO of Children’s Hospital on January 1, 2008, Mike was asked to maintain and build upon the foundational high standards of excellence laid down over twenty years by former CEO Dr. Jim Dearth.  Then, on the heels of the announcement of his new assignment, Mike joined with the City of Birmingham in launching a massive expansion project for the Children’s Health System, including a new hospital facility in the block immediately north of the current hospital.

Over the coming months and years, hundreds of millions of dollars will be raised for this project – and all the while, our Children’s Hospital will go on making miracles every day, saving and healing the children of Birmingham, Alabama, the nation and the world.  I’m pretty sure Mike Warren’s days of being featured in the program are far from over.

So there’s the concept – a program for the good guys, for the players you really do need to know.  I’ll bet there are hundreds more out there and if you know one, and would like them profiled here, drop a comment in the electronic box that’s a part of this blog.

I hope I’ll see you later on “Positively 20th Street.”



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A “Park-ner-ship” for the Future

Much has been said about Birmingham’s ample green space.  And it is ample – more than, in fact.  To put it simply, we love parks.  Parks are a big deal here, and likely to get bigger when we start connecting them all, one to another.  But that’s jumping ahead.

Birmingham is a very green city and region – literally.  We are doing better these days in the environmental sense of the word also, but for just pure color, green is it in Birmingham.  You couldn’t count the shades of green I can see out of my living room or office window.  We are blessed with green trees (many of them pines), green shrubery, green-coated mountains and valleys, the underbrush is green (especially in the kudzu growing season), we’re blessed with acres and acres of green grass, green foliage.  We even adore fried “green” tomatoes.  Face it – we’re green!

Our tradition of dedicating parks to preserve all that green space dates back to the 1920s to the city’s decision to create a Birmingham Park and Recreation Board and to hire the noted Olmstead landscaping firm to create a plan for preserving and enhancing our many parks and open spaces.  The firm had a notable track record even then, having developed plans for park space in cities such as Boston and Baltimore.  Their recommendation was comprehensive and highly detailed, and you may read about the vision set forth in the Olmstead report in “The Olmstead Vision: Parks for Birmingham,” published by the Birmingham Historical Society in 2006.  

At the core of the Olmstead vision was the idea of preserving green space along the streams that flowed through our valleys.  In fact, the ridge and valley topography of the Birmingham region lent itself to this concept and is today why there is at least some park space preserved along the Shades Creek Greenway adjacent to Lakeshore Drive in Homewood.  Similar plans are in place for greenways along Village Creek and Valley Creek and the preservation of land in the Turkey Creek watershed is continuing.  The Olmstead report envisioned the set-aside of land around the creeks and the preservation of that land (and, thus, the preservation of the quality of the water as well).

The creation of some entirely new parks also has gained the public’s attention in recent years, stepped up dramatically in 2006 when United States Steel announced its largest corporate philanthropic gift ever.  The steel company agreed to sell more than 2,000 acres of wooded land along the ridge of Red Mountain to a non-profit trust – and offered it at roughly a 50% discount to the appraised value of the land.  In addition, U. S. Steel stroked a check in the amount of $1 million to help the park planners get started with their operations.  Imagine park space larger than New York City’s Central Park connecting Birmingham to Bessemer along the ridge of Red Mountain where iron ore mines once fed the mills of Jones Valley.

In the city center, just south of the Morris Avenue railroad tracks, a smaller but equally strategic space has been dedicated as a park and preparation for construction is under way there.  The Railroad Reservation Park will extend along the south side of the tracks at Morris Avenue two blocks to 2nd Avenue South and east-west between 18th and 14th streets.  This park will feature grassy areas, a lake with paddle boats, walking paths and a pedestrian overpass from the park to the soon-to-be-built intermodal transit center on Morris Avenue. 

In East Birmingham, the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve sits astride Ruffner Mountain – 1,100 acress of woodlands and trails criss-crossing the ridge of the mountain and connecting old mining sites.  A new nature center is being constructed with federal funds and park supporters are raising additional funds to add a new 500-acre tract to the park’s holdings.

South of Birmingham is the large Oak Mountain State park, and to our West is Tannehill State Park.  Dotted across our landscape are literally hundreds of smaller municipal and “pocket” parks.

In Pittsburgh a couple of years ago, some of us had an opportunity to learn about that city’s parks program and the “string of pearls” concept – an idea that’s also being implemented here.  The idea is that parks exist to be enjoyed, and that perhaps linking the park or green spaces can amplify that enjoyment.  Thus, a series of walking, hiking, biking trails has been developed (a la the Shades Creek Greenway) to connect the parks – as a string is used to connect pearls.  A day can easily be envisioned when one could (if one wished) walk, run or hike from Tannehill State Park on the Tuscaloosa County line through the Red Mountain Park, along greenways to the Railroad Reservation Park, continuing on rail rights-of-way to Ruffner Mountain and, ultimately, on to Cheaha Mountain and the Appalachian Trail.

And why, exactly, is this important?  Aside from the enjoyment a park offers, the enhancement of quality of life, the preservation of land and water quality and the general benefits to our health and well-being, setting aside parks and green spaces say something to us about the future.  Taking these actions in the 1920s was a way for our forefathers to ensure the sustainability of the city and region while staking a claim to the economic growth that followed.  Want a better economy?  Build a park and improve people’s lives.  Seems to me that the same equation works today, and as we preserve and enjoy the new spaces, we’re making a positive statement about the future we all hope to share in this really green place.

Barry Copeland 


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With Apologies to Mr. Dylan

When Bob Dylan’s famous lament on the nature of hypocrisy first made the charts, those of us who are now called Baby Boomers memorized all the words.  Positively 4th Street pretty much laid it all bare and Dylan’s  words seemed to capture what we in the 60s thought typified the hypocracy we saw all around us – in the media, in the government, in any institution with authority.  What could sum up the youthful, disillusioned attitude of those watershed years better than, “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.  When I was down, you just stood there grinning!”  

Those who observe the passing scene on 20th Street in downtown Birmingham today could make an effective case that we’ve just rolled back the clock 40 years.  It’s 1968 all over again, and it seems as though everything that has been happening in my town is bad.  Not just bad, in fact, it’s awful.  It’s almost as if you could pick an issue – any issue – and bet safely that it’ll be the subject of conversation somewhere in some forum in the coming week.  The issue could be elected officials, or proposed projects, the actions (or inactions) of any legislative body, our environment, our schools, our businesses, our infrastructure.  The list of negative things to cuss and discuss is endless.  I think, in fact, that we may be at the point now where an alternative view is not only a pleasant change – it’s becomming essential for the maintenance of our collective regional sanity.

So, with apologies to Mr. Dylan – and consistent with a move up to 20th Street (the most important street in Alabama, I would offer) – here is Vol. 1, No. 1 of Positively 20th Street.  And let the emphasis be on the word Positively for that’s what this little blog will be about.  What’s good in Birmingham.

I like the idea of the city’s “Believe in Birmingham” web site, and I like what Mayor Langford says on the site.  “We can’t expect anyone to believe in us until we believe in ourselves.”  Amen!  Admittedly my view is limited, but I’m convinced there are many great things happening in Birmingham these days that deserve a forum, and that is the intended purpose of “Positively 20th Street.” 

Here’s one such conversation starter, with the promise of more to come in future posts.  Do you know that the UAB community is now about the size of the city of Gadsden?  Actually, on any given day, UAB now claims approximately 17,300 students and another 18,000 faculty, staff, physicians, etc.  Add to that about 786 patients a day, on average, and their families, and you have Gadsden.  It’s a very fluid population, but the economic impact is hard to ignore — and we ignore it at our peril.  UAB’s economic impact is now about 12-to-1, meaning, In layman’s terms, that for every dollar the state invests in UAB, roughly $12.00 will be returned into Birmingham and Alabama’s economy.  So when the state invests $50 million, as it agreed to do last year, the impact of that investment in our region and state, over time, is something in the neighborhood of $600 million.  What’s not to love about that?

UAB – and so much more – is good for Birmingham.  And to that point, you may expect more – later. 


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