"Let's Do the Dome ... NOW!" the banner said.
The wind picked up and the crews took the banner down, lest it strike one of the politicians on the platform. Was it an omen? That's not the question. The real question is why would anyone need an omen in the first place? The future was obvious to anyone not willfully deluding themselves with the mayor.
This is the moment from 2009 I'll remember longest. Certainly the conviction of Mayor Larry Langford is right up there, but Langford's trial was when reality caught up with our group delusion. The dome ground breaking was the moment when our political madness reached its peak.
One editorial writer questioned what project of this magnitude had ever had a such a groundbreaking and not later reached fruition. He also mocked the protestors across the street, contrasting them with Civil Rights foot soldiers. Five months later, the only contrast left is the incredulity of those protestors compared to the gullibility of The Birmingham News.
From the platform, Langford told the crowd that Birmingham's problem is that the people here don't believe in themselves. If we just have faith, we can make whatever we want happen, he argued. It's a Disney cartoon trope with a real-world cruelty akin to teaching homeless children to believe Santa Claus will bring them everything they ever wanted, if only they just believe hard enough.
But Christmas came and Christmas went, and the only thing Santa left under the tree for Birmingham was an $8 million bill — the cost so far for blueprints to a building we'll never build. Langford's trial came and went, too, and it left behind a confused city council squabbling over who was supposed to be minding the city's books. What the city's deficit will be at the end of the fiscal year next June is anyone's guess, but the educated guesses put it anywhere between $40 million and $90 million. And that's after the revenue from Langford's tax increase was included.
Birmingham isn't the only local government that's broke. Jefferson County's troubles this year made national news. Municipalities throughout the county are slashing their budgets. As for the state, the looks I've seen on legislators heading to Montgomery next month — you'd think they were going to their own hangings.
It's common knowledge among senior government officials in Alabama — recessions hit the state later, harder and longer than the rest of the country. Our sales tax base is hypersensitive to fluctuations in the economy. The state has to cut spending on infrastructure and government jobs when the economy needs that spending the most — in effect, a reverse-stimulus plan.
All of this is to say, there won't be any domed stadium.
From this day forward, any further effort to advance that project will be haunted by the YouTube video of a convicted criminal as its biggest proponent. It will be chained and shackled by the painfully pathetic image of then-Council President Smitherman reciting the Prayer of Jabez. (Please, God, give us a dome?) It will be stained with the social awkwardness of Langford calling Alabama Power CEO Charles McCrary to stand on the stage next to him, only to have McCrary suddenly turn shy. It will forever be cursed by the hordes of seemingly intelligent people in this city who staked their futures to the credibility of a carnival barker-turned-convict. Thanks to Larry Langford, domed stadium is the new monorail.
When Langford steered the bulldozer around the platform to break open the ground, he should have dug a little deeper and made a little grave, instead.
The dome is dead. Langford killed it. And that might be the best thing he ever did for this city.
On Christmas Day, The New York Times told the story of cities across the country that are limping through the recession, maimed by the stadiums they built for economic development. Rather than raking in new revenue, cities such as Cincinnati and Indianapolis are bleeding cash because of their so-called investments.
Cincinnati, in particular, has been hit hard. There, county officials have drained their reserves to make debt service on their new facilities, and the city is cutting essential services, including education budgets to make up for the shortfalls.
Across the country, stadium projects are inducing Jefferson County-like financial problems.
For at least 20 years, Birmingham has had stadium envy. The business community and political class have pushed the dome as an economic development project, but our latency has given us the benefit of hindsight.
The dome is not a project anymore, it is an embodiment of our insecurity complex and our inability to have an original thought. We wanted one so we could be more like Atlanta, until no one anymore wants to be like Atlanta. But our dome envy remains. Perhaps we could trade Atlanta a dome stadium for a regional water supply.
Next week will be a new year and a new decade. If Birmingham wants to believe in itself it has to quit trying to be like everybody else. The dome was an unpleasant distraction from even less pleasant problems, like the fact that we still have segregated schools. It gave us all something to talk about, when we didn't want to talk about the things that really mattered.
Next week will be a new year and a new decade. If Birmingham wants to prosper, it needs an appropriate resolution.
Let's forget the dome ... now.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com