mayor moves city forward
Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright is in his second term. He was recently
interviewed at his second-floor office at City Hall by Central Alabama
Business Journal Editor David Zaslawsky
|Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright oversees
a staff of about 3,000 people and an operating budget of more
than $190 million.
Central Alabama Business Journal: Governors give an annual
state of the state address. What is the state of the city?
Bright: I think we're doing very well. We are financially strong
at this point in time. We balance our budget every year. We base
our budget and I'm not sure why the state doesn't do the same, on
the previous year's revenues. We know for a fact how much revenue
we had last year and we always stick with that number. We don't
budget over that. I think that would be a good pattern for the state
to adopt. With this technique we all would be much more secure.
CABJ: Does the city of Montgomery have a surplus?
Bright: We have the first time that I know of a cash reserve of
between $8 million-$12 million. We never had that opportunity before,
but we have that as a result of my great finance director Lloyd
Faulkner and the growth of the city. Fifty-one percent of our revenues
are sales tax revenues. Sales taxes to me are the most regressive
tax you can have and they are the most insecure revenue that a city
bases its budget on. The City Council makes the decision whether
to raise or lower the sales tax. They have in years gone by raised
our city sales tax. People voting in the past have not raised the
ad valorem tax (property tax). The other source is an occupational
tax. You saw what happened when the county tried to do that a year
or two ago. The city can do it and in the past our City Council
has not done it. Our occupational tax is zero. We have the lowest
ad valorem tax in the nation yet we have a very high sales tax.
CABJ: Isn't the sales tax 10 percent?
Bright: Ten percent. You have to take the good with the bad. The
good is you have no occupational tax and you have the lowest ad
valorem tax in the nation. The ideal situation and I wish I had
the authority to wave a magic wand, is to divide that revenue among
the three. That is a healthy system.
CABJ: Because if one source was down, the other sources could
make up the difference instead of relying so heavily on a single
Bright: Absolutely. The most unstable is the sales tax. If the
economy is in the pits, people tend to save their money instead
of spending it. When that happens 50 percent of our revenue is affected.
When you ask me how is the state of the city, you have to factor
in a lot of things. If I had my desire, we would balance that 50
percent revenue source among the three basic ways you can generate
revenue to provide city services. We have depended too heavily on
sales tax and not enough on ad valorem and occupational taxes.
CABJ: What are other sources of revenue for the city?
|Bright stands next to the Pergola that
overlooks Spash Park on the riverfront.
Bright: There are other sources out there that we tap in to that
gives up 49 percent of our revenue such as ad valorem taxes that
gives us 23-25 percent; we have business licenses and professional
licenses; we have other miscellaneous items and grants. We have
the zoo and other sources of income.
CABJ: The Montgomery Biscuits are a revenue source.
Bright: The Biscuits are about a three-quarter of a million dollars
asset. Their debt obligation is about a half million so we're making
money off of them. The bottom line is the financial security of
the city of Montgomery is solid compared to other cities. Our growth
this year in sales tax will be 6 percent. That's the highest growth
we had since I've been mayor. When I took over in '99, we were on
the slippery slope down on the economy and our growth the first
year here was 0.9 percent. We've gone from 0.9 percent growth to
6 percent in five years.
CABJ: What is the operating budget?
Bright: Last year's operating budget was $182 million and this
year will be somewhere around $190 million-$192 million.
CABJ: What is the size staff you oversee?
Bright: About 3,000 people.
CABJ: Let's talk about the downtown/riverfront region where
so much development has been going on. What's the latest on the
Bright: When I came on board I established the Downtown Riverfront
Foundation and I appointed a number of key individuals who I felt
had a desire like I did to stabilize, revitalize and grow our downtown.
I pretty much sit here on the peripheral and watch them as they
work, guide and counsel them on what I think we need to do with
our city. I listen to what they advise me to do.
CABJ: How important is the downtown region to a city?
Bright: It is my philosophy that any strong and healthy city has
to have a core - a strong, healthy nucleus. The core of the city
of Montgomery is our downtown. It's Dexter Avenue and Commerce Street
and stretching down to the riverfront. If you let that core weaken,
if you neglect that core, then your overall growth of the city weakens.
You can support and still have a lot of urban sprawl, but it weakens
and thins out your city services - eventually to the point where
your city services are not strong, they are not reliable, they are
not dependable and your city dies. It has happened to a lot of urban
areas in the United States. What people are recognizing is that
in order for them to be strong and vibrant they have to make sure
that the core is strong. There's another reason. Your core is your
area of the city that everybody can buy into. Everybody has a connection
to our downtown, whether it be black, white, rich, poor, young or
old. If you are doing something to strengthen your core you are
doing two things: you're doing small city growth and secondly you
have more buy in from all different sections - the diversity - in
your community. That's what I think my success comes from if I have
any, is that we keyed in on what needs to be done to strengthen
and support our core and they bought into strengthening our downtown,
which everybody understands is our historic city. We have to protect
those historic sites. We have to upgrade our downtown. We have to
make our downtown attractive so people will want to come back into
the downtown area and not continue to go out into the urban sprawl.
You are always going to have urban sprawl. Every city in the nation
experiences what we experience right here - people leaving Montgomery
to go out in the country and buy bigger houses and more land for
less money and more privacy. You can't stop that. What we can do
is make those folks when they go out there want to come back in
to work, come back in to town when they have people visit their
CABJ: What's the status of the downtown projects?
|Bright points out one of many historical
tiles on a mural that is at the top of the hill at the Riverfront
Bright: We did a master plan within a year after I was elected
for downtown revitalization and growth. We're implementing certain
phases of the master plan: one being the riverfront development.
That will always be an ongoing project. One day the riverfront will
connect to Maxwell Air Force Base.
CABJ: How long before we will see shops and restaurants on
Bright: I hope you will start seeing shops and restaurants in
the next 18-24 months. It will be the most beautiful sight in Montgomery.
You don't see it now, but there's a retaining wall they have been
installing the last two years. The retaining wall goes anywhere
from 15-20 feet deep in the bank. The riverwalk will be one of the
most secure spots in Montgomery because of the infrastructure we
had to put in. They have been working there for two years and 90
percent of their work is covered up. You will be able to put 18-wheelers
bumper to bumper all along the (riverwalk) and then drive heavy
equipment on top of that and it will never, ever give or slide.
We are at Part 1, Phase 3 of the riverwalk.
CABJ: What's the next phase?
Bright: Part 1, Phase 4 is already drawn up, already been bid.
CABJ: What is it?
Bright: It's going to be another 1,000 feet toward Maxwell, going
down beyond the old train shed and hooking into the tower that is
going to be next to the (Montgomery) Advertiser and the Intermodal
CABJ: When will construction start on the Intermodal transportation
Bright: We had some complications with the Intermodal.
CABJ: Have the disputes been resolved?
Bright: It's going to be built. The lowest bid was a couple of
million dollars over what our construction manager thought it should
be. Now we are in negotiations with the low bidder. If we can get
that price closer to what the project manager predicted, then we
will sign the contract and he will construct the facility.
CABJ: What was the project manager's estimate of the Intermodal
|Bright makes a visit to the area near
the Montgomery Police Department's Riverfront Substation.
Bright: He estimated the first phase at $4.5 million. The lowest
bid came in at $6.5 million. We should see full-fledged construction
on the Intermodal before October-November.
CABJ: What's the cost for the riverwalk?
Bright: So far, the riverwalk has cost $12 million-$15 million.
CABJ: What will be the final price tag for the riverwalk?
Bright: The main footprint I call it - we'll have $15 million-$20
million in it. That's before a developer comes in and builds a retail
shopping area and puts another $6 million-$7 million in it.
CABJ: The Montgomery Civic Center is being expanded into a
convention center and a hotel is being added. What's the latest
on those projects?
Bright: We partnered with ARH, a subsidiary of RSA (Retirement
Systems of Alabama). We contracted with them and relied on them
to give us all the details. They were projecting the total project
would be between $80 million-$85 million. They came back with a
bigger budget and it's now going to be about $130 million.
CABJ: The city's share of the project is $29 million. Has that
Bright: No. I have a contract that my cap is $29 million and we
have that money available.
CABJ: Why has the overall cost grown from $85 million to $130
Bright: It's going to be a five-star hotel and one of the nicest
hotels in this state. It's going to have 350 rooms. It will have
a number of meeting rooms and we're expanding the civic center by
about 30,000 square feet for exhibitions. But we are also adding
another 20,000 square feet for meetings.
CABJ: A performing arts center is also being constructed.
Bright: This is another item that caused the cost to go up. We
have a contract with ARH and RSA to build a performing arts theater
and they had initially thought it would be a temporary-type of facility
that you could break it down and use it for an exhibit hall. They
determined not to do that and make it a permanent, fixed performing
CABJ: How many people will it seat?
Bright: Between 1,800-2,000 people. There's also the parking deck
that is part of the $29 million the city is spending. The parking
deck will have room for 650-700 cars.
CABJ: Is the downtown/riverfront development patterned after
Bright: I did very little traveling before I became mayor. I've
always been able to see what we could have in our riverfront area
because we have that beautiful riverfront. It doesn't take a genius
or a visionary to see what we have here, how we can stabilize it,
revitalize it, grow it and develop it. I am not patterning Montgomery
after any city, but I am very conscious of people's desire to be
near water. I am very aware of Montgomery's history and that people
come from all over the world to walk in the footsteps of Martin
Luther King, Rosa Parks, Jefferson Davis, and even George Wallace
and Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. We had that master plan done
by a group out of Atlanta and they are the ones that came up with
some of the suggestions and ideas. All I try to do is implement
CABJ: How are the downtown/riverfront projects going to impact
the region? Tourism?
Bright: I see a vibrant, energetic retail/entertainment area downtown.
I see people coming from far and wide walking the streets - not
only coming here as a pass-through tourist attraction to see our
historic sites, but coming here as the destination, staying here
and having conventions here and experiencing what we have to offer
here rather than coming here to see historic sites.
CABJ: What is the financial impact of the downtown/riverfront
development? Is there anyway to gauge that?
Bright: I don't know. It's got to be millions of dollars. That's
CABJ: When you are helping to recruit companies to Montgomery,
how do you promote the city?
Bright: It has a small-town atmosphere. We have tremendous diversity.
I consider our diversity as a positive, an advantage we have. We
have a military base here that helps our diversity and helps our
economics. Our state government, being the state capital is unique
because there are only 50 of us in the United States. To me being
in the state capital is a privilege and honor and it helps stabilize
our economy. We had a void that I hope we're closing quickly. That
was manufacturing jobs. We have service jobs, military and government
jobs. We were losing manufacturing jobs in Alabama, but because
of the automobile industry we have recaptured many of those jobs.
And Montgomery specifically, not only did we recapture those jobs,
but I think we've grown significantly. We have Hyundai and we got
10 of their tier one suppliers - 10 of the 40.
CABJ: How many jobs have those 10 suppliers created for Montgomery?
Bright: Between 4,000-5,000 jobs. We have one supplier, Mobis,
which has 800 people and they are already talking about expanding
to 1,200 people. There are hopes and expectations of Hyundai expanding.
When they get in full production they will have between 2,600-2,800
people employed under their roof.
CABJ: That is considerably more than the 2,000 employees Hyundai
has earlier talked about.
Bright: They initially told me 1,800 and they came back and said
they would have between 2,600-2,800 at full capacity. You can see
that they have already expanded from what they promised. I have
been very pleased with Hyundai. They have done more things than
they contracted to. If you look at the contract it said 1,871 jobs.
They have already modified that in certified mail sent to me for
2,600-2,800 people at full production.
CABJ: With all the downtown/riverfront projects, the $1 billion
Hyundai manufacturing and 10 suppliers and the growth in the east,
could things be any better for Montgomery?
Bright: East Montgomery's growth is being driven by private dollars.
The city is not having to do one thing to do that. A lot of folks
are under a misconception that Montgomery has abandoned sections
of its city for the growth in the east.
CABJ: I was going to ask you about that.
Bright: I haven't put one red cent in other than infrastructure
such as streets. And I'm not even doing much of that because the
developers will do that at their own cost. The west side in my opinion
is one of the fastest growing areas in the state of Alabama. What
our census showed that between 1990 and 2000 we grew by 14,800 people.
How much did Prattville, Wetumpka and Millbrook grow? They all three
grew by about 10,000 people. We grew faster than them in that 10-year
period all three put together and we're going to do the same thing
this census report.
CABJ: What is your grand vision of Montgomery?
Bright: My grand vision is to have people in Montgomery of all
races, of all economic status working together to make our community
a stronger, more attractive community. And all these material things
and material projects that we see happening in our city are happening
primarily because we've got more people working together, more people
around the table voicing their opinions, having their input and
at some point in time I would like to see people discussing what
we can do and not what we can't do. I'm not out there as mayor trying
to put these projects together - this is bricks and mortar to me.
What I see is what they create. When we get through with our downtown,
riverfront, civic center, baseball stadium, maybe even a light rail
going through our city again some day, I look at that as projects
we have built relationships with each other. We will quit being
known as the polarized community of the United States; we will quit
being looked at as a racist section of our nation where blacks and
whites cannot work, communicate or socialize together. Even go to
church together. After we get these projects done people will see
that we all do it together, that there is value in working together,
communicating and socializing together. If we recognize that one
day, there is no limit of what Montgomery, Ala., can be to the world.
That's my vision right there. These projects are just sticks and
CABJ: Are there other projects under way or in the planning
Bright: We have Gateway Park on the west side. We have a little
over half the money we need to complete that project. We will have
a grocer's alley - New Orleans-style. We will also have two parking
decks. A Municipal Court complex is my next big project.
CABJ: What are your political aspirations?
Bright: If the people so choose, I would serve. I love Montgomery.
I love representing the people here in spite of some difficulties
we have here and some issues that surface from time-to-time. I don't
like politics and I despise politicians who are there just for their
own personal gratification. I butt heads with the Legislature all
the time because I know they are not there for the right reasons
on a lot of issues. If the people so choose I would consider it
an honor to step not up because as far as I'm concerned being mayor
of a capital city has been a great job. But I would step into another
area, broadening my abilities to represent the people in the area.
CABJ: It sounds like you are not looking at a third term as
mayor. Could your job as mayor be finished after your second term?
Bright: It could be if the people lead me to believe they want
me to move on to something else or move out.
CABJ: If people asked you to run for a higher office, would
you consider that?
Bright: I would definitely consider that. It's not something I
go out and solicit. My dream is to represent Alabama or a segment
of Alabama in Washington, D.C. I don't care about being governor;
I don't care about being lieutenant governor or a state senator.
CABJ: I heard that you were driving a Hyundai XG350. Didn't
you end up with one of the first 2006 Sonatas made at the plant
Bright: I bought the very first one. I went to Korea this summer
and when I was there, I spoke to (Hyundai) Chairman Chung. I told
him I wanted to get a commitment from him to sell me the first one.
I didn't want him to give me one. Everybody said why didn't you
get him to give you one. I said no you don't do that. He graciously
agreed to sell me the very first one. I bought it for my wife. I
sold my XG, bought the Sonata and gave it to my wife and I drive
a city car.
CABJ: Did you pay full sticker price?
Bright: I made sure I did. I paid $24,000 and it's really a car
that you could buy for less than $20,000, but I had all the extras
put on it.
CABJ: Which model was it? The GLS or LX?
Bright: The GLS.
David Zaslawsky is the editorial coordinator
for Central Alabama Business Journal. You can call him at (334)
230-2225 or send an e-mail.