Domed stadium proposals
Various domed stadium proposals have been discussed for decades. In 2009 the Birmingham City Council approved funding for architectural plans for a 57,000-seat multi-purpose facility on 4 blocks of land immediately east of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
Discussion of expanding or replacing Legion Field was kick-started in 1993 when the Southeastern Conference decided to move the SEC Championship Game to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, two years into a five-game contract with the city. In 1995 Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, Jr had city staff evaluate potential sites for a new stadium, including the idea of erecting a roof over Legion Field.
About the same time, officials in Alabaster began discussing the possibility of purchasing a former limestone quarry and building a domed sports stadium in it. The Alabaster Dome proposal was halted because of difficulties in obtaining the needed land, but it did spur a bill in the Alabama Legislature, sponsored by John Rogers, which set up a commission to acquire and operate a stadium in the Birmingham area. The version of the bill that passed, however, removed the commission's power to direct the use of state revenues for the project.
The 1997 Southeastern Regional NCAA Basketball Tournament, held at the BJCC Arena, was predicted to be the last regional tournament that could be held in Birmingham without a larger venue. Figures like the SEC's Roy Kramer and Gene Hallman of the Alabama Sports Foundation were already looking forward to a study for expanding convention and event facilities in Birmingham. A steering committee headed by Hallman and Larry Lemak commissioned a study to determine what type of facility might suit Birmingham's needs.
The result of the study was the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy campaign of 1998. It was modeled after a similar program which was passed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1993, but planned to more closely resemble the 67,000-seat Trans World Dome in St Louis, Missouri along with its associated Cervantes Convention Center and St Louis' MetroLink transit system.
The proposal contained, along with several other initiatives, a proposal for a "multi-purpose convention and entertainment facility", which was projected to cost under $300 million. The overall package of capital projects, to be funded by a 1-cent increase in sales taxes as well as larger increases in lodging taxes, was put to a referendum of all Jefferson County voters. Opponents of the plan, notably the group known as "RAPS" (for "Real Accountability, Progress, and Solutions"), promised an alternative means of funding the same slate of projects. The vote had a high turnout and the plan was defeated by a margin of 57 to 43 percent, with "no" votes coming primarily from outside Birmingham proper. The "RAPS" group never produced any alternative schemes. Despite the other aspects of the MAPS plan and the rhetoric of both sides in the debate, the vote has been commonly viewed as a referendum on a publicly-funded domed stadium.
BJCC expansion plans
Proponents of building a dome regained steam over the next decade. The Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Authority considered a covered multi-purpose event facility central to their long-range expansion plans. A multi-purpose facility adjacent to the BJCC was incorporated into the City Center Master Plan, presented in 2003 and efforts continued to secure commitments of funding from the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County, and the State of Alabama.
The city agreed to the request, but the county, reeling from a sewer construction scandal, increasing debts, and uncertainty about the future of the occupational tax, would not commit. Governor Bob Riley said the State's support would only be given once local leaders presented a unified plan. The BJCC decided to explore alternatives and to focus on the development of an entertainment district on the land they had already purchased.
The debate over domed stadium plans continued in the run-up to the 2006 elections. Once again, suburban voters made a stand, putting a new Republican majority on the commission which promised greater fiscal responsibility and specifically rejected the notion of lending their support to having a domed stadium as part of any expansion to the BJCC. Other locations for a stadium were floated, including the Alabaster quarry site and another undeveloped site in Forestdale. Birmingham City Council president Carole Smitherman called for designing a fabric roof over Legion Field as a cheaper alternative.
Meeting in Salt Lake City in February 2007, the BJCC authority, including Birmingham mayor Bernard Kincaid and Jefferson County Commission president Bettye Fine Collins, voted unanimously to pursue a $505.5 million expansion, including $380 million for a 40,000 seat arena which could be used to provide 175,000 square feet of exhibition space. For a time it appeared as if the smaller stadium proposal enjoyed broad support, but criticisms sprung up regarding its inability to house potential tenants such as the Magic City Classic (or a possible NFL team). Conflicting reports of private backing came and went, with State Representative John Rogers and County Commissioner Larry Langford periodically stating that a full-scale dome in one or another location, built with private money, was a "done deal."
The dome remained a hot topic during the 2007 Birmingham mayoral election. All nine candidates expressed some support for building a dome, or at least for putting it to another referendum. In a forum in Smithfield, candidates addressed a question about the future of Legion Field. William Bell said he hoped to build a domed stadium in its place. Larry Langford proposed turning into a park like New York's Flushing Meadows and building a new stadium at Fair Park. As Langford's status as a front-runner emerged, he promised to make building a dome a priority for his administration and that he would propose a way to pay for it without help from the state or county within his first 30 days in office.
Mayor Langford's proposal
In December 2007, Langford won approval of a Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance, which called for funding a $500 million "Dome Stadium" with revenues from doubling city business license fees. The proposal that emerged was for a 57,500-seat stadium, expandable to 65,000 seats. The facility would provide 160,000 square feet of floor space for trade shows or conventions, and would be designed to accommodate basketball and concerts at less-than-full capacity.
A panel of business leaders confirmed that the best site for the project was adjacent to the BJCC after Langford suggested looking at other sites. The BJCC began interviewing potential architects in May 2008 and selected HOK Sport (now Populous) of Kansas City, Missouri. In July 2009 the Birmingham City Council approved Langford's proposal to earmark $8 million per year to the project through the design phase.
In April 2014 David Silverstein of Bayer Properties, manager of the Uptown entertainment district, mentioned that he and others would be proposing a 42,000 seat arena as part of an expansion of the BJCC in the coming months.
2016 BJCC Master Plan
In 2015 the Alabama State Legislature passed a local law allowing Jefferson County to refinance its $600 million in school construction debt and apply savings to the general fund. These funds are considered critical to the county's ability to contribute to any capital projects, including expansion of the BJCC. The law was struck down by Judge Mike Graffeo in 2016, but in the 2016 general election an amendment to the Alabama Constitution of 1901 which retroactively preserved the law and others passed in the same manner.
In August 2016 the BJCC Authority unveiled a new master plan from Populous which included a 45,000 seat open-air stadium adjoining the complex north of the Uptown district. The design allowed for expansion to 55,000 seats and would serve the UAB Blazers and the Birmingham Bowl. The projected cost for the entire renovation project was nearly $300 million, of which $174 million was projected for construction of the stadium. While the city and county have indicated willingness to contribute to the expansion and updating of the BJCC, it remained unclear how much funding would actually be available.
In his 2017 State of the City address, Birmingham mayor William Bell alluded to a $200-225 projected cost for an open air stadium and a $450 million-plus cost for an enclosed stadium, which he would prefer. He hoped to secure a public-private partnership to finance the project and said that an announcement could be expected "fairly soon." Bell's defeat in the 2017 Birmingham municipal election effectively ended those efforts. New mayor Randall Woodfin proposed that the city contribute $3 million per year for 30 years to help the BJCC finance the $300 renovation and expansion with an open-air stadium. The proposal, with an added stipulation that "revenues" from the BJCC expansion would go into a Birmingham Neighborhood Revitalization Fund, was approved by the Birmingham City Council on March 27. Jefferson County, UAB and unspecified corporate partners pledged funds for the project. The open-air Protective Stadium opened in 2021.
Notable proponents and opponents
Several local figures have become known as strong proponents of the idea of building a domed stadium in Birmingham:
- Gene Hallman, sporting event promoter (Alabama Sports Foundation, Bruno Event Team)
- Larry Lemak, chairman, Alabama Sports Foundation
- John Rogers, state legislator
- Larry Langford, former County Commissioner and now Mayor of Birmingham
- Jack Fields, BJCC executive director
- Richard Arrington Jr, former Mayor of Birmingham
- Richard Scrushy, former CEO of HealthSouth
- Elmer Harris, former CEO of Alabama Power
Others are known primarily for their opposition to building a dome:
- Jimmy Blake, former Birmingham City Council member and leader of "RAPS"
- Bob Friedman, co-founder of "RAPS"
- Kamau Afrika, community activist who sued to stop the MAPS election
- Jim Carns, Bobby Humphryes & Bettye Fine Collins, Jefferson County Commission, campaigned on a pledge not to support a dome
- D.U.M.B. (Dome Unnecessary in Metro Birmingham), activist group picketing groundbreaking in 2009
- Williams, Roy, Bob Blalock and Doug Segrest." (February 24, 1994) Atlanta gets SEC game." Birmingham News
- Nabbefeld, Joe (July 11, 1995) "City weighs dome sites, including Legion Field." Birmingham News
- White, David (August 1, 1995) "Legislators take first step to get domed stadium." Birmingham News
- Scarbinsky, Kevin (March 20, 1997) "This may be last hurrah for BJCC: Civic Center becoming too small as NCAA turns toward larger arenas for Sweet 16." Birmingham News
- Segrest, Doug (August 10, 1997) "Arrington: Timing good for stadium." Birmingham News
- Bright, Taylor () "The Dome Debate: Will a multi-purpose facility and entertainment district make magic for the city?" Birmingham Post-Herald
- Howell, Vicki (February 22, 2000) "Rogers: Domed Stadium Basically Done Deal." Birmingham News
- Chandler, Kim and Stan Diel (November 25, 2007) "Langford's dome plan takes form." Birmingham News
- Geiss, Chuck (December 27, 2007) "Naked Birmingham." Black & White
- Bryant, Joseph D. (January 6, 2008) "Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford wants study on site for proposed dome stadium." Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (March 15, 2008) "Birmingham business leaders to study possible dome locations." Birmingham News
- Williams, Roy L. (April 27, 2008) "Dome double whammy: Credit crunch, rising materials prices pose new peril to pet project." Birmingham News
- DeButts, Jimmy (December 17, 2008) "BJCC board picks HOK architect firm for dome." Birmingham Business Journal
- Tomberlin, Michael (December 28, 2008) "Proponents of a `multipurpose facility' tried in vain to persuade people not to call it a dome; now, as long as you know what it is, you can still use ..." Birmingham News
- Williams, Roy L. (July 16, 2009) "Funding by Birmingham City Council for dome stadium culminates 11-year effort." Birmingham News
- Poe, Kelly (August 17, 2016) "New BJCC master plan includes open air stadium, Legacy Arena upgrades." The Birmingham News
- West, Ty (January 11, 2017) "Bell likes the idea of larger, enclosed stadium facility at BJCC." Birmingham Business Journal