Birmingham complex gains notice, but work remains

Associated Press Updated: January 1, 2014 at 3:47 pm • Published: January 1, 2014 0

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — City officials placed a $46 million wager by building a gleaming, modern sports complex in a neighborhood dotted by defunct businesses and vacant homes. The plan was to use a bold city investment to lure private dollars and revitalize a blighted area.

The sports center, called the Birmingham CrossPlex, is working well on one level: It gets rave reviews from coaches, and a tourism group says it has brought millions of dollars to the region after more than two years in operation.

Yet the neighborhood looks much as it did before. There's a smattering of commercial development — but also, just a short walk away, boarded-up businesses and burned-out houses left to the elements.

City officials and developers hope that all begins changing, and soon.

It may have seemed like an odd idea to build the facility in the middle of one of Alabama's roughest urban areas. But the Birmingham CrossPlex — at 750,000 square feet, with top-flight track and field facilities plus a swimming and diving pool — already has played host to dozens of events including NCAA and collegiate conference championships, and more are on the way.

About 60 events are on the facility's schedule through February, during the height of the indoor sports season. That includes five collegiate conference track-and-field championships plus the state track championships, and the NCAA recently announced it will hold about a dozen championships at the center over the next four years.

The NCAA Division II swimming and diving championships were held at the CrossPlex in March, and coach Jeff Dugdale was impressed.

"I feel like Birmingham hit a home run with it and should be very proud of it," said Dugdale, of Queens University in Charlotte, N.C.

Relatively few people even know the complex exists, however. Florida Southern College swimming coach Duncan Sherrard said he had to do research after learning the NCAA meet was being held at the CrossPlex, which he had never heard of.

"I thought it was a great facility," Sherrard said.

First dreamed up by former Mayor Larry Langford, who is serving a federal prison sentence for accepting bribes, the CrossPlex is a low-slung building constructed at the site of the old state fairgrounds beside an arena. The exterior walls are red brick and tan stone with rows of windows on top.

One side of the building has a racing and diving pool with bleachers that will seat 1,000 people; the other side is for indoor sports including track and field, volleyball and wrestling, and it seats 4,000. The halves are separated by an open atrium with tile walls and shiny floors; meeting space also is available.

The "dry side" of the CrossPlex has a running track with turns that can be raised and lowered using hydraulics for different events. Only a handful of similar tracks exist worldwide.

Yet there isn't much around the CrossPlex besides a shopping center, a few restaurants and blight. Visitors must drive about six miles to the nearest large hotels downtown. The city is promoting the area to commercial developers, but successes have been limited so far.

Edrick Harris of the Atlanta-based H.J. Russell and Co., which has been working to develop about 40 acres of empty land around the CrossPlex, said planners are working on a master blueprint to construct a commercial village on the tract. The NCAA championship meets should help lure a hotel, he said, and that will spur more commercial growth.

"It becomes a catalyst for the whole corridor," said Harris.

While the facility has yet to live up to its goal of revitalizing the surrounding area, the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates visitors have spent $85 million over the last two years of operations at hotels, restaurants, stores, gas station and entertainment venues.

Dugdale said the facility could be even better with some changes, including work to help alleviate the stuffy, chlorine smell that can develop during large swim meets. And a face-lift to the surrounding area also would help, he said.

"I think it has proven it will work. I think they've just got to keep cleaning that neighborhood up," he said. "You've got to spend money to make money."

Jarvis Patton, operations director for City Hall, said leaders are investing in the area with a new fire station, a new police precinct and improved landscaping. Development will come, he said.

"This is all just the beginning," he said.

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