ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Giles Perkins. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
Editor’s note: Railroad Park transformed Birmingham. Against great odds and overwhelming skepticism, Giles Perkins and a group of committed community volunteers persevered. I asked Giles to write this piece to give insight to those of you who would like to make a difference.
I think it was in 2002 when I made my first visit to the lot that became Railroad Park.
My sons were younger then–their sister was not born yet–but they came with me and brought their bicycles. There was a burnt out railcar in the corner. In the middle of the lot there was an old trailer with someone living in it. A sign on the door said DON’T KNOCK UNLESS YOU ARE THE POLICE OR I WILL SHOOT.
We packed up the bicycles. On the ground I found a rusted railroad spike. I took that spike and put it on my desk as a reminder of the task I had taken on and the distance we needed to travel to have success.
We know a different park now, one that is celebrated in publications like this one. Gone are the scary trailer and the rusted spikes. Families with bicycles do not have to worry about safety.
Developing the park was an idea that, in hindsight, just made sense. But not everyone saw it that way, and we had to work hard to realize our vision. I write in the hope that talking about the challenges of building Railroad Park will inform and support those who take on our next great projects.
Most people greeted our idea with skepticism. A lot of people liked the idea but doubted its viability. Some were a good bit uglier. Much of the apprehension arose from the distrust between City Hall and those over the mountain, but it also had to do with our collective pessimism and doubt that we could do anything special.
We combated this attitude with a realistic plan and an unwavering commitment to success. We quit talking about a string of parks and focused on the digestible notion of one 20-acre park. We rid ourselves of doubt that we would build it. We liked the idea too much to let it go.
We focused on getting partners that would give us credibility. The City, the County, a few corporations and foundations gave us the building blocks of fundraising success. And then the park took off.
As your own project takes flight, people will try to take it over. Do not let them. Be wary of those looking for credit or exposure from your project’s success. The heroes of Railroad Park are those who acted in a selfless fashion. Those who sold T-shirts and gave free talks for years to put the project on the radar. And also then-Councilor Bell, who quietly brokered a deal between our group and the City without any press or fanfare.
Watch out for those who are stuck in Birmingham’s traditional approach to success. At one point, I was invited to a meeting where a couple of community leaders wanted to dictate who should be on our board. It was a ridiculous meeting based on a ridiculous premise: That in a town of a million people, there are only a few citizens worthy of leadership roles.
For Railroad Park, we had some establishment board members, but we also had community people, UAB folks, designers, and loft dwellers. Having a more accurate and inclusive representation of our community led to a better park. It opened the door to the idea that anyone who wanted to contribute could serve as long as they were given simple training as to the role of a board and its members.
The enemy within was the realization that we could not do everything in the park. A lot of great ideas came forward but they did not all fit. We had to decide that soccer fields and other worthy amenities needed to go somewhere else. I am not sure all of our decisions were correct, but it is important that we made them. Trying to please everyone would have stalled or maybe even killed the effort.
The day we opened the park, I challenged my own children and all the children of Birmingham to adopt a project and see it through. I reissue that challenge now. Learn from our successes and failures. This is your home. Make it what you want it to be. And, when the going gets tough, go out to Railroad Park and be reminded of what is possible.
Editor’s note: Railroad Park just celebrated its 5th Anniversary. Read how Railroad Park impacted Birmingham: 2010—the year that changed Birmingham forever
Giles Perkins is a fourth generation lawyer living in Birmingham and is a Partner in the Adams and Reese Birmingham office. He’s a Founding Member of the Birmingham Zoo and served as President of the Railroad Park Foundation during the construction of the $22 million project.
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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, leads business development for the Small Business Division of the Intermark Group, and is co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).