Economic Development from the Inside Out

By David Hornbuckle

j-johns251Last week, on October 18, the Black Belt Community Foundation honored Protective Life CEO Johnny Johns as the 2016 Black Belt Legacy Award recipient for his years of dedication to philanthropic work. According to a recent editorial by the Foundation’s president Felicia Lucky, the organization’s mission is to improve “education, economic development, health and wellness, and arts and culture” in twelve impoverished rural counties that comprise Alabama’s Black Belt. The event at Birmingham’s Harbert Center included displays of arts and crafts from the Black Belt region. Members the most renowned artisans from that area, the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective, were among those on hand, and they even did a moving performance of gospel music while dinner was being served.

We had a chance to sit down with Johns before the event got underway, during which we got a preview of some aspects of the speech he made later in the evening. The theme of his talk was the importance of revitalization that comes from the people themselves, not from outsiders. As outsiders from the metropolitan areas, we can provide resources, but it has to be up to the people in the region to make use of those resources in the best way they can. “They have to own it themselves,” Johns said.

Johns took many aspects of this message from a 2014 book by John Hope Bryant titled How the Poor Can Save Capitalism. Bryant, who is the founder of the nonprofit Operation Hope, says that we should not look at the poor as a drag on society or a number in the debit column. Instead, we should see them as one of our greatest assets. If we give poor communities the right tools, policies, and inspiration, he argues, they will be able to lift themselves up into the middle class and become a new generation of customers and entrepreneurs.

The message of Bryant’s book and of Johns’ lecture are both aligned with the motto of the Black Belt Community Foundation: “Taking what we have to make what we need.”

Those of us working in blighted urban areas in and around the Birmingham metropolitan area should take note of this message as well. Although the urban poor and rural poor face different types of challenges, there is an overlap in the kinds of strategies that we can employ in both situations.

We also know that well-meaning outsiders don’t always have a good understanding of what the communities actually need. That is why we have said repeatedly that cities like Fairfield must take charge of their own destiny. Having a new mayor and several new council members is a start, but ordinary citizens also have to do their part and invest in their own communities with whatever resources they have available.

For more information about the Black Belt Community Foundation, go to their website:

Fairfield Woman Co-Author’s a New Book

charita-200x300Charita H. Cadenhead had a realization one day that she thinks of the word “hope” almost every day, sometimes several times a day. She began to wonder if it was a common experience for people to have a single word that meant as much to them as “hope” meant to her. The idea for a book was born. She reached out on Facebook for possible co-authors and received responses from people she didn’t even know, people all over the country.

The books is called 1 Word: Discover, Reflect, and Connect with Words That Can Transform Your Life. Thirteen co-authors contributed essays on the words that were most meaningful to them, writing about words such as curves, home, destiny, stillness, and trust. Books are available for pre-sale now and will be available in bookstores after the official release on November 12.

There will be a release party for the book on Saturday, November 12, at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Hoover from noon-4:00. Four of the authors will speak at the event, and several others will be on hand to sign books. Tickets for the event cost $20 and can be purchased from the book’s website:

Cadenhead is a mother of one and grandmother of two. She currently serves as the President of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association in Fairfield. In addition, she is the host of the Renew Refresh Reset Your Life TV podcast on Firetalk where she interviews people that have made significant changes in their lives. Her other publishing credits include Sell Your House Fast for the Right Price and I Am Woman: 21 Triumphant Women Sharing Their Journey to Embracing Truth and Their Authentic Self.

100BLACKMENDEEP Group Hopes to Inspire Unity

By George Evans (photos courtesy of the 100BlackMenDeepWalk Facebook Page)

100blackmendeep_5If you live in Fairfield, chances are you heard something about the “100BLACKMENDEEP” walk that happened on September 4th. As part of the event, citizens from Fairfield and Ensley marched from the Fairfield High School to Willie Mays Park while chanting “Black power, Black unity” and “Black love.” The commotion might have woken you up. If so, that’s ok—that was kind of the point.

100blackmendeep_4According to Indeya Assatta (a two-time organizer of such events) the protest was supposed to “wake up the hood” both physically and morally. In Fairfield, this took the form of a march. Water was provided to keep protesters hydrated, and cars were used to protect the walkers from traffic. All of this was done without any kind of outside funding. “This is a real grassroots effort,” said Indeya. “We are paying for all of this stuff out of pocket, and these people have given up their Sunday mornings to come out and make a difference.” By “making a difference” Indeya meant canvassing houses, knocking on doors, and bringing people out into the streets in a show of solidarity.

100blackmendeep_2Was this effective? It should be said that the protest refused to succumb to the disease of so many modern protests—it didn’t get stuck in bring-awareness- molasses: the phase where a whole lot gets talked about and a whole lot of nothing gets done.  Instead, feel-good symbols were followed by serious consideration and thought. “After each walk there is a town-hall meeting” said Assatta, “in which the community is divided into over eleven committees, each focused on a different issue. The idea is that these committees will continue to work for change long after the march has finished.” Ultimately it would seem that “100BLACKMENDEEP” events are all about communal solidarity. Assatta intimated as much when she said “We want to deal with local problems locally, from within the community.”

100blackmendeep_6By now, you are probably wondering about the name. Why 100BLACKMANDEEP? According to Dejuan Hall (the movement’s main Facebook activist) the events are designed to “bridge the gap between the youth and elders” of Fairfield. One look at the crowd proved that they had, on however small a scale, accomplished just that. Of the two hundred or so protestors, citizens of every age and gender were present. Clint Walker, a resident and first time participant, acted as a sort of icon for this age disparity, showing up with his young son. When asked why the event was important, he stated “My son is out here with me today. He is nine years old. I need to let him see that there’s more to life than video games and hanging out with friends.” This sentiment was shared by Dejuan Hall, who said “We need to start with black men. We need to be leaders in our community. We have to set an example for the kids. If they can’t look to us, then who can they look to?”

Though they had a lofty goal it would seem that the protesters had very realistic expectations for the event. Mr. Walker summed up this realism by asking, “What is going to happen after today?” He spoke his biggest concern in the form of a question: “Is today a photo-op, or a true opportunity to change and build something?” A tough question indeed.

100blackmendeep_7A cynical reader might balk. After all, it is true that the Fairfield event is over. The protestors have gone back to their houses. The resounding call and response of megaphone and black voices has died. The asphalt streets are once again barren.

But the movement has just begun.

The group is now performing a “west side tour” of similar events. They also now hold town-hall meetings at 6:30 on Tuesday nights in the Mosque #69 on Tuscaloosa Avenue. If you are interested in joining the group call Dejuan at 205-460-6435, or follow the group on Facebook at #100BLACKMENDEEPWALK.

Midfield, Brighton, and Lipscomb Election Results

We’ll be updating these results as information comes in.


  • Mayor – Gary Richardson* (406 votes, 69%)
  • Council Place 2 -James Resor (406 votes, 68%)
  • Council Place 3 – Wendy Merriweather (399 votes, 66%)
  • Council Place 4 – Janice Anderson (421 votes, 69%)


  • Mayor – Brandon Dean (376 votes, 52%)
  • Council Place 1 – Marquise Moore (351 votes, 52%)
  • Council Place 3 – Ashley Henderson (406 votes, 61%)
  • Council Place 4 – Shawn Dale-Johnson (366 votes, 54%)


  • Mayor – Brenda Renz* (219 votes, 82%)


Fairfield Election Results

All results are unofficial until certified by the city.



  • Edward E. May II (925 votes, 41%)
  • Johnnie Wyatt (717 votes, 32%)

City Council District 1


  • Frederick Scott (150 votes, 40%)
  • Barakas Taylor (148 votes, 39%)

City Council District 2

Susan Jo Parks (131 votes, 57%)

City Council District 3

Cynthia Turner-McDowell (182 votes, 70%)

City Council District 4

John Hackett Jr. (auto-elected, unopposed)

City Council District 5

Herman Carnes (274 votes, 70%)

City Council District 6

Willie Hardley Jr. (auto-elected, unopposed)*

City Council President

Eddie Penny (1165 votes, 64%)



Fairfield’s Invisible Assets

There have been conspiracy theories floating around lately about a certain lame duck mayor, a certain historically black college, and a plot to drive a small city into the ground until it is forced to merge with Birmingham. We have seen no hard evidence that such rumors are true. What we do know is that a series of bad decisions by the city’s leadership, combined with the circumstances of a changing economy, have led the city into a difficult situation. However, the commercial potential of properties along Aranov Drive, Valley Road, and Gary Avenue could soon lead to a Fairfield Renaissance under the right leadership.

Fairfield’s economy certainly suffered some when U.S. Steel began its first layoffs back in the 1980s. However, the real trouble started with a series of bad municipal decisions over the past few years. U. S. Steel used to occupy the Flintridge Building, a massive office structure on E.J. Oliver Boulevard, a convenient location for managing its plant just outside the city limits. A few years ago, the city passed an occupational tax, which representatives from the steel company say they would have been happy to pay going forward, but the city made the tax retroactive. Balking at this sudden expense, U. S. Steel built an office building in Hoover instead.

Something similar happened when the Department of Health wanted to build a new office building in Fairfield. The city wouldn’t work with them on changing the zoning of the proposed building, so they built it down the road in Midfield instead. According to one government official we spoke to, the recent closing of Wal-Mart in Fairfield may have been a response to the city’s stopping payment on tax incentives that had brought the big box store into the area in the first place.

Speaking to an audience of voters at the recent “Forum on the Future,” State Representative Rod Scott said that when he was on the Fairfield City Council in 2002, the city had a municipal income of $9 million. Before that, it had as much as $15 million coming in annually. Currently, the city is bringing in only $3.8 million annually. Scott said “we can survive on that if we cut expenditures, restructure, and right-size services.”

Scott said that there has been no audit of Fairfield’s finances since 2012 and no real budgeting process for several years. However, he said, he has examined the most recent budgets for the city of Fairfield. Scott claims that these older budgets seem to indicate that there about thirty revenue streams that the city has not been utilizing in recent years.

One of these is the solid waste management system that the city hires out, which Scott said the city has been subsidizing. He says that the solid waste utility fees should be bringing in over $600,000 per year. However, out of 3220 people billed in the last billing cycle, approximately half are in arrears. So the city has cut off services to those customers. However, on top of that, according to our source, there are an additional 1384 customers who should have been billed and never were. Some of those who owe money have allegedly received bills of up to $1500, and they’ve been told that services will not be resumed until the bill is paid in full.

The upshot there is that the city is not collecting money that it is rightfully owed, and when it does try to collect, it does so in a ham-handed way that causes discontent. All told, there is more than a million dollars in back fees for solid waste that the city has not collected.

There has also been neglect in collecting fees for other revenue areas like business licenses and municipal court fees. Scott said that there are stacks of warrants that haven’t been issued, some going back to as early as 2006. According to Scott revenue that could be coming in from these court fees could be anywhere from a half million to a million dollars. He also says that business licenses and sales tax have not been collected from many local businesses. The business licenses alone should be bringing in up to $600,000.

A source within the city government backed up Scott’s claims. He told us, “A lot of people seem to be suffering under the mass delusion that the only city revenue comes from sales tax,” he says. “Thirty-something other revenue streams exist, or should exist, but many have gradually and mysteriously dried up over the past few years . . . Basically, people pay if they want to pay. Nobody is out there asking for the money. If you wanted to destabilize a small city so you can take over, this would be a good way to do it.”

It’s a more subtle type of corruption because it can easily pass for a lack of bandwidth within the mayor’s office due to shrinking resources. At worst, it would be seen as incompetence, which isn’t illegal. Our source believes that Fairfield has approximately $55 million in untapped assets. He tells us, “People say Birmingham won’t touch it because Fairfield has $8 million of debt, but with those assets, I’d buy up that bad debt all day long.”

Is Mayor Coachman solely to blame for this neglect? Not entirely.

To borrow a popular movie cliché, it’s like a perfect storm:

  • The economy started suffering
  • The Mayor failed to replace some key positions, which would have helped revenue
  • The Council started crossing over into the Mayor’s lane on decisions
  • The city outsourced business licenses and fees to a person with no accountability to the city

To borrow another line from a film, what we have here is a failure to communicate. The Council has largely been working in the dark with little communication from the Mayor. What people need to know and remember though is that Fairfield’s situation was caused by a series of bad decisions by its leaders, not by the capacity of the community. The community itself, we continue to argue, has great commercial potential.

All this being said, we aren’t fully ready to buy the conspiracy theory, but we think somebody needs to look a LOT closer at the city’s finances—somebody impartial and with authority. The coming municipal elections have the potential to clean house—if it isn’t too late already. Coachman isn’t running for re-election, so he’s already done all the damage he can. Nearly everyone on the city council is running again, and only Willie Hardley is running unopposed as an incumbent.

We feel strongly that Fairfield is a jewel, and if it gets absorbed into Birmingham, it won’t be. It will just be another neglected neighborhood struggling to get by. Fairfield has a lot more to offer than that, and its greatest asset is its people.

Fairfield Candidates Introduce Themselves at Community Forums

A candidate forum on Friday August 5 gave those running for public office in Fairfield a chance to introduce themselves to the public. The basement of City Hall in Fairfield was packed for the event, with at least two hundred people attending. The event was organized by the Fairfield Neighborhood Presidents.

The candidates for Mayor and City Council are as follows:

  • Mayor – Rodger Davis, Omar Young, Jennifer Craig, Jack Cleveland, Edward May II, Johnnie Wyatt
  • Council President – Darnell Gardner, Eddie Penny
  • District One – Barakas Taylor, Garry Brandy, Fredrick Scott, James Reasor
  • District Two – Wanda Shelby, Susan Jo Rembert Parks, Gloria Matthews
  • District Three – Cynthia Turner McDowell, Harry Lee
  • District Four – John Hackett Jr. (auto-elected w/no opposition effective upon swearing-in)
  • District Five – Wanda Erskine, Herman Carnes Jr., Jerry Yarbrough
  • District Six – Willie Hardley Jr. (auto elected w/no opposition effective upon swearing-in)

Thirty-five minutes into the event, people were still coming in. In an effort to “put citizens first,” many candidates gave up their seats when audience seating became sparse.

Mayoral candidates were asked the usual questions about what they would do in their first hundred days and why people should vote for them.

Craig stressed the importance of building morale and trust between the Mayor and the Council. She also said that an audit must be performed. She said she is interested in total revitalization, including the creation of an entertainment district in downtown Fairfield to bring in a younger crowd.

Young said the most important thing is to get people paid. He also wants to make better use of the Fairfield Civic Center to raise revenue, citing his history as a restaurant owner as one of his qualifications. Young wants to provide amnesty to those citizens who have been hit hardest by the “garbage tax.” He stated that the city should take better advantage of its interstate access to lure in big box stores and expand the business sector.

Wyatt mentioned that it has been some time since Fairfield has had an audit. His priority is to review all the city’s service contracts, including those with MAX and AT&T.

May said that his priority would be to restore proper management, including having a proper audit, refinancing bad debt, and reducing payroll expenses. He expressed his desire for Fairfield to be a “model city,” alluding to the origins of the city in 1910.

Davis emphasized the importance of safety, cleaning the streets, and attracting new businesses. He said he is “a doer, not a talker,” repeating this line several times throughout the evening. He said that we should work with citizens one on one to address the issues with the “garbage tax.”

Cleveland focused on getting the budget under control and having a cleaner city with no boarded up houses or “junkyards” in residential neighborhoods.

The candidates for City Council faced fewer questions from the audience and moderators, but they did have opportunities to speak. Mr. Hackett, though running unopposed for the District 4 seat, still participated in the event. Many in the audience appeared to appreciate his making an effort to introduce himself.

Mr. Hardley, the incumbent in District Six, did not attend, though he did organize a separate two-day candidate event on July 29-30, which was billed as “Forum on the Future.” About 50 people were in the Coleman Community Center on that Friday evening when Hardley introduced State Representative Rod Scott to start off the evening. Scott spoke for about twenty minutes about various anomalies that he has allegedly discovered by examining the city’s finances.

After the presentation by Scott, four of the six announced mayoral candidates introduced themselves and answered questions from moderators and from the audience. People in the audience told us they were hoping to hear about issues like the finances of the city, the garbage tax, and safety in the streets. One voter, April Beck, told us that Fairfield felt a lot less safe to her than it did when she was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The candidates who appeared at the event were Edward May II, Omar Young, Rodger Davis, and Jack Cleveland. Candidates Johnnie Wyatt and Jenny Craig did not appear.

Moderators first asked the candidates to introduce themselves and inquired about their careers and community involvement. Young discussed his work as a recruiter at Miles College, his bakery, and his volunteering as a little league football coach. May mentioned his current post as Fairfield’s city attorney and his volunteer work at his church. Davis is the owner of a construction firm. Cleveland said that he is retired from two different careers and admitted he doesn’t do much volunteer work.

Candidates were also asked about what they would do to improve cooperation between the mayor’s office and the city council, what Fairfield would look like under their administration, and what people would be saying about them after four years in office.

The next day at 3:00, another forum was planned for candidates running for the city council. About 25 voters attended, but none of the candidates made an appearance. Scott and mayoral candidate (and current City Attorney) Edward May II spoke to the small crowd about some of the issues currently facing Fairfield.