Fairfield's fiscal future

Aug 6, 2016

It's been more than four months since the Wal-Mart store in Fairfield closed its doors, leaving many people to find goods and services elsewhere. City Leaders are scrambling to not only plug holes in the city's budget but create more economic opportunities to people that have lost their jobs.  APR’s MacKenzie Bates traveled to Fairfield to find out what’s next…

It’s a quiet morning on Gary Avenue in downtown Fairfield.  The Magic City Grille is open for breakfast and Beauty Land Cosmetics is opening its doors for business. 

At one point this was the major shopping district for Fairfield.  But many shops now are boarded up.  Locked.  Vacant.  And that’s creating an eyesore with many folks in the area. 

 “Not only has it fallen on bad times, but it has a bad reputation for doing business. 

That’s Frank Woodson. He’s in charge of economic development in Fairfield.

And that’s one of the things the mayor has worked to change.  To create an environment here through legislation and service to where Fairfield will be a city that’s open for business.”

The city of Fairfield has fallen on hard economic times.  Woodson says the community lost 1,100 jobs when U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Works blast furnace closed.  Then Wal Mart closed. The big box store was on the chopping block when retail giant closed 154 outlets nationwide earlier this year. 

I took a ride around town with Woodson. The pain of losing a Wal-Mart is still plain, four months after it made its final sale.  Fairfield also lost big--to the tune of one hundred and twenty five thousand dollars a month in sales tax revenue every month. 

“This is the old Legacy Mall. There used to be a K-Mart down here, it’s gone.  One of the businesses that couldn’t compete being adjacent to a Wal-Mart.  You had a Food World that was right here that later became a Winn-Dixie, it’s gone,” Woodson says.

Woodson drives through a strip mall close to where Wal-Mart used to be.   It’s almost entirely vacant storefronts and faded signs.

Woodson and I get out of the truck as we park right in front of the Wal-Mart.  He explains what this store meant to people in Fairfield.

“And on this side behind the store, you have low to moderate income communities,” Woodson says.  “But on that side, you’ve got an affluent community.  And it was the perfect mix to make food and other durable goods available to the families that didn’t have the transportation to go to other places.”

There’s a bus stop right in front of the old store, so residents could go about their business.

“I stay on Martin Luther King (Blvd.) with my niece when I’m not at home in Ensley.” 

People like Theodis Taylor for example.

And then I can walk up here and catch the bus.  Here’s my bus pass.  It was very convenient,” Taylor says.

Taylor lives in low income housing. The bus was his only way to get around. Soon, he’ll have to walk. Fairfield owes the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority half a million dollars. No money, no buses. And Woodson says the response he hears in the same…

Mayor Kenneth Coachman cites the Great Recession of 2008 Fairfield’s financial woes.  The City Council has not passed a budget in two years.  They’ve had to release prisoners because the city couldn’t afford to feed them.   They’re struggling with an eight million dollar deficit thanks to mismanagement of city funds.

City officials are working to fix those problems and they’re optimistic. So is Coachman.

“We want to help those business who are coming in to do it correctly,” Mayor Coachman says.  “We encourage people to invest in Fairfield.  Money is here.   People have not stopped spending.  They just don’t have a place to spend it. There is a plan for the city”

It’s called the 100 plan.  City officials want to bring 100 businesses to Fairfield in the next few years. Woodson says they have 38 businesses coming, including a dance studio, a doctor’s office and a night club.

Stephen Smith is one of those owners relocating to Fairfield.  He’s opening an art gallery.  He had a soft opening for the Gallery a few weeks ago.  He hopes to open to the public in a few months.

“It looks like we’re going to be able to pull it off by hook or by crook but the aesthetics of Fairfield, the downtown area is so attractive, it’s so historical,” Smith says.  “It’s got a lot of appeal.  With our without me, it’s going to turn around.”

It’s people like Smith, Woodson says, that capture the spirit of Fairfield.

“You still see these boarded up buildings as we ride through downtown Fairfield,” Woodson says.  “But one of the things that I’ve seen in the hearts of people that have grown up in Fairfield is a resiliency that says the same things that made us great once, we have to rediscover those things.”

That holds true for one Fairfield business owner.

Alan Jones owns and operates his own Auto Service store and business is good. 

“I just like money and that’s what I learned how to do as a kid,” Jones says.  “I didn’t have to go to college to do it and I’m good at it and we have a good business.”

He works on a lot of the city’s police cars because he knows the city needs cops on the streets.  He fixes some of the issues with the squad cars without getting paid up front. He trusts the city’s good for it--probably. He says as long as a steady flow of cars come in to his shop, he’s not going anywhere.

“The way I was raised, I can go anywhere and make money anywhere,” Jones says.  “But I’m here.  I own my property.  I have my own clientele.  I got people that come back regular(ly).  And it’s hard work but as far as you’ve got to have business, I’ve got it.”

There are signs across the city that say “Welcome to Fairfield.  An Older City Moving in a New Direction.”  City officials and residents are doing everything they can to make sure that direction is forward.