That Larry -- he's controversial Vision: Combining conservative social policy with liberal spending, Mayor Larry Langford is determined to realize his dream for Fairfield, Ala. -- a dream some see as a nightmare.

Sun Journal

July 26, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

FAIRFIELD, Ala. -- When people describe the mayor of this town, they often start by saying, "Well, that Larry he's crazy."

Crazy or not, the charismatic 50-year-old Larry Langford seems to be single-handedly transforming this former steel town of 12,000 west of Birmingham into a financial dream -- or a nightmare, depending on whom you ask.

Some say his latest triumph -- a municipally financed theme park -- is a miracle and a blessing. They tout the work it took to get 11 municipalities to put up $65 million in bonds to build the 70-acre park, called VisionLand, in nearby Bessemer. They envision millions in revenues.

Others call it a "money-sucking" pit that doesn't have a prayer.

Langford, who works as the Alabama spokesman for Anheuser-Busch Cos., runs the town with a combination of social and religious conservatism and liberal government spending.

He once spent $10,000 of his own money to plaster billboards all over adjacent Birmingham with the words "Wall of Shame." He kept the signs updated for a year with a running tally of black-on-black murders in the United States.

Frustrated by his inability to lure a family restaurant to economically depressed Fairfield, he used $300,000 of city money to build one. He named it "Glory's," as in "to God be the glory."

He banned bikinis and Speedo swimsuits at the community pool he built and posted a sign cautioning: "If you wear a size 20, buy a size 20."

At VisionLand, male employees are forbidden to wear earrings, ponytails or baggy pants. Women may wear no more than two earrings. "If you want to work here," Langford says, "we're the final word on what you look like."

The park has been the "vision" of Langford's decade-long tenure as mayor -- ever since his then 3-year-old niece begged him to take her to Atlanta's Six Flags amusement park. Longford refused and set out to build his own amusement park.

With sticky-pad notes and napkin sketches, he persuaded 11 of west Jefferson County's 15 mayors to sign on to the project, which he originally estimated would cost $25 million. They pledged from $1 million a year over the next 25 years for the city of Birmingham to $1,700 a year from North Johns, a town of 170.

In 1995, Langford negotiated the purchase of 520 acres adjoining Interstate 59 from USX Corp.'s real-estate division. Three years later, the park opened.

"At first, they all thought I was about three french fries short of a Happy Meal," Langford chuckles. "I was tired of having to drive somewhere every time you want to do something. I wanted people to stop driving through Alabama. I wanted it to be a destination."

In its first seven weeks, the park has drawn more than 220,000 customers. It features Rampage, a wooden roller coaster with a 120-foot drop, a 7-acre water park with slides and floating pools, a 106-foot Ferris wheel and dozens of kiddie coasters.

According to a study by Atlanta-based Visioneering, the park is expected to bring in 890,000 to 1.2 million people in its first year and generate a profit of more than $8.5 million to be divided among the cities, based on how much they put in.

Therein lies the worry of some of Fairfield activists.

"It will be a cold, cold day in Hades when we get back what we put into it," says Dr. James Blake, a member of the Birmingham City Council who voted against funding the park.

Langford ignores the criticism, his eyes dancing as two tour buses approach the park's main gate. "I love to see those roll in here," he says.

Langford tours Fairfield in his fully loaded sport-utility vehicle. Its vanity tag reads "Visionland 3" -- his top two managers have "Visionland 1" and "Visionland 2."

"See that Home Depot down there?" he asks. "I brought that here." A boarded-up Winn-Dixie supermarket is soon to become a U.S. Postal Service tracking office.

Atop a hill sits a 30,000-square-foot civic center that cost $4 million in city bonds to build six years ago. When no restaurant would come to the center, Langford built Glory's. Three white crosses illuminate it at night. "See those crosses on top of that building?" he says belligerently. "They're going to stay up there."

But the Southern-food buffet seems to be struggling. Since Kelco Food Service Inc., a Miamicompany, started running Glory's for the city two years ago, it has lost about $60,000, according to its manager, Jim Badia.

Langford's plans include a $57 million aquarium, a 60-store outlet center, a 14-screen stadium-style theater and a hotel. "When I put myself out of the way and put him [God] first, everything I touch works," he says.

Other improvements go to the city's appearance. Last year, Langford bought a troublesome nightclub in a residential area, had it demolished and built homes for needy families. Tired of tall grass in front yards, he charged homeowners $1,000 to cut their grass if they failed to heed his warnings. It generated $80,000 for the city's coffers.

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