ONE BLACK MAN’S OPINION: BJCC Board Too Old & Too Political
Several of our most highly visible boards and agencies spent 2022 making the headlines for poor customer service, questionable integrity, and intense criticism from the Mayor himself so you’d think that the organizations governing our city would finally be ready to make a change. But, here in the South, we have a phrase to live by, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and by taking a look at the current composition of boards like the BJCC we are looking at something broken and watching them not do a damn thing to replace aging the facilitators of millions of dollars flowing into our city. The gatekeepers of opportunities for financial growth and the final say on diversity and inclusion practices when it comes to contracts rest in the hands of Baby-boomers. Ultimately, if you’re wondering why there seems to be a lack of black contractors working on local city developments, why we are so behind the times as it relates to arts and entertainment or who is standing between us and automatic water reading monitors, look at who sits on the BJCC board.
The BJCC, according to their website, is governed by 9 board members—8 men and 1 woman—and is a “premier event and convention facility,” which includes several sports, music, and theater venues, rooms in the Westin and Sheraton Birmingham, and the Uptown Entertainment Complex which sits at the heart of downtown. Drawing 1.1 million visitors a year and generating almost $45 million in revenue and $9.5 million in profit during FY22, it is clear that the current BJCC board members are in no rush to vacate their seats. But, when that same board has the same chairman for over a decade, a former chairman serving on the board for over 30 years, and multiple members who have a vested political interest connected to their appointment, it’s about time that the power of changing the socioeconomic playing field for our communities is in the hands of younger upwardly mobile individuals who are focused on the future of our region and not those focused on enriching friends and repaying political debts on the backs of rate and taxpayers.
The Jefferson County Legislative Delegation—a bipartisan committee composed of members from the Alabama State House of Representatives and Congress, appoints the BJCC board members. However, the same thing is true about the Alabama legislature as is with the board—too many members willing to die holding onto power than to pass on the reins to the generation tasked with dealing with whatever comes from their decisions now. According to the Census Bureau, the City of Birmingham is 68% Black with a median age of 36, and Jefferson County is 43% Black with a median age of 39, almost 40; yet, the BJCC Board, the decision makers for this demographic of people is majority white, male, and closer to 60 than the median age of the people their decisions affect most. The current chair of BJCC, Dennis Latham, is the executive director of the Coalbed Methane Association of Alabama, a political action committee that has contributed over $50,000 members to bipartisan candidates since 2012; and has been a member of the BJCC board of directors on and off for the past 25 years. Joe Sanders, who began his tenure on the board in 2016, is another well-known face in politics, through his political consulting firm Master Imagine. Michael C. Keel serves in an elite executive role at McWane, Inc., a leading manufacturer in waterworks, fire protection, and technology, and has kept his position for the past 19 years.
I am more of a fan of their other colleagues, who represent a new demographic to a board in dire need of variety in age, race, and background as we soar into the next phase of the technology age. Joe Freeman is a principal at E.F. Joseph, LLC, a financial firm, and his background as Vice President of Protective Life, an insurance company dedicated to protecting and supporting families from birth to retirement, shortly after graduating from Auburn, shows that his life experience and what he brings to the board is much different than his colleagues and more closely tied to those he’s representing. More importantly, much of his life experience guiding his decision-making happened within the past 20 years, not before it. Houston Smith is the current vice president of governmental affairs at Alabama Power, a utility with a history of responsible corporate leadership within the state, where he has served for the past 5 years. Similar to Joe, he is a millennial whose background as an attorney and Director of Public Relations, then Director of Federal and Corporate Affairs at Alabama Power, all happened in the 21st century and ties him closely with others in similar positions because these are his former classmates and colleagues, not their children. Moreover, Smith is known throughout Birmingham for more than his title and status as an active community member. Ultimately, even more so than his colleagues aforementioned, many would be less likely to question his judgment as they feel he knows their concerns.
And this isn't to say that his well-respected and more than well-accomplished colleagues on the board are totally out of touch with the city. It’s a commentary on the fact that in 2023, the conversations we have around diversity, coalition building, and the future of Birmingham are significantly different than they were 20 years ago. And as time continues to take us to places unimaginable, the people mapping out the plan for that future should remember to prioritize continued sustainability over personal longevity. Samuetta Drew, the one and only Black woman on the board, is the executive director of security for the Jones Group LLC, a construction firm, and the former Chief Operating Officer of Birmingham City Schools. A highly skilled and respected educator, she has quite a distinct background from her peers, but that doesn’t mean she’s without fault. She is currently in her 16th year on the board. The longest-serving member, Dr. Clyde Echols, is a retired optometrist and has a legacy of his own within the BJCC as a former chairman during a critical transition point in the BJCC’s history. For both Echols and Drew, the title of first has been bestowed onto them many times since their respective appointments, and for their contributions and time spent, we are forever grateful for their service. But, both of these astute board members should be mindful of their responsibility to make room for others. Being the one and only is an honor, but what is a legacy that begins and ends with you?
This is just the first in a series of commentaries involving our local boards and agencies. If you would like to comment on this story or our next, please email Iva@our360.news.