Folsom and White
David Bronner secured the support and commitment of Governor Hunt before he ever embarked on the RSA Monroe Street development. Early on, every arrangement with the State ran smoothly. The land for The Union Office Building was made available, and desirable state agencies were lined up as tenants. When the job was bid and underway for two months, it looked as though we would finally have one RSA project that would run smoothly. Then it happened.
The “it” was Governor Hunt’s April 1993 conviction on a felony ethics charge and his immediate removal from office. In came then Lt. Governor Jim Folsom, Jr., who appointed Jim White as State Finance Director. Jim White was a black CPA from Birmingham, and he and Bronner quickly became arch antagonists. Before his appointment as Finance Director, White was the managing partner of the largest minority-owned accounting firm in the nation. He had previously served in the Wallace administration, and he was a registered lobbyist for racetrack king Milton McGregor. In addition, he was a political ally of Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, the connection that got him the job in Folsom’s cabinet. Jim White believed he was a worthy adversary for David Bronner, and was quoted in the Advertiser on December 7, 1993, as declaring “My background makes me sharper than Bronner at whatever he does!”
Within two months after taking office, White and Folsom attempted to seize control of the RSA’s investment committee. Bronner adroitly blocked that move by painting an unflattering picture of the pair in the press, and White seethed at the defeat. To exact revenge, the dynamic duo then notified the department head of every State agency scheduled to move into the Union and Tower that their next annual budget would not be increased to support their relocation.
Suddenly Bronner faced the prospect of completing $100 Million in office building with no tenants. He complained in the press that White’s refusal to reaffirm the written lease agreements signed by Governor Hunt could collapse the RSA’s entire $100 Million building investment. All of this controversy played daily in the newspapers, and I was blocked from proceeding with the tenant layout work. The Lowder and Aronov real estate interests now had a champion in Jim White, and they were suddenly vocal in their condemnation of the RSA’s attempt to revitalize downtown. The bad publicity made Bronner irritable and our project was no longer fun to work on.
Finally, in October of 1993, after five months of public bickering, Folsom reluctantly agreed to honor the Guy Hunt commitments and affirmed that the stipulated agencies would be allowed to become tenants in the RSA buildings. However, his Finance Director, Jim White, could not let the issue rest there. He slashed the lease areas of every tenant agency for which we had designed space. It was a carnage.
In the Union, White reduced the Mental Health area from 2 1/2 floors to 2 floors. The State Purchasing Department shrank from a full floor to 2/3 floor. The Public Service Commission gave up a third of the top floor. The Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) reduced their lease from two floors to 1 1/4 floors. The Space Management and the Management Analysis Departments were not allowed to move in at all. The placement of a huge state printing plant in the basement, for which we had designed special electrical capacity, was canceled. In the Tower, the Department of Public Health reduced its occupancy from 12 floors to 10 floors. As a result of White’s vengeance, PH&J had to redesign well over a half-million square feet of office space, and the RSA had lost 200,000 square feet of tenant rental.
One of the great ironies of the White vendetta occurred in the grand suite we had designed for Mickey McGehee, the head of Space Management. Knowing that all state office leases flowed through Mickey’s office, we saw to it that his suite, complete with private toilet, was fit for a king. The completed space sat empty for months as a result of White’s order, but was finally leased to the State Board of Cosmetology. I kid you not, the sight of the beauty parlor operators holding forth in that opulent space just does me in.
All this was costing PH&J dearly in redoing tenant layouts, but otherwise I mostly just observed the drama in the newspaper, commiserated with the agency heads who were being squeezed, and offered timely facts and advice to Bronner to aid him in his responses to White. On a few occasions I had to meet with White in his Capitol office to debate the merits of something or other we were doing. I found him to be as arrogant and rude as the papers depicted him.
At some point in all this, I finally perceived that my commission with the RSA and David Bronner had as much to do with keeping David out of political trouble, as it had to do with building buildings.
The Wall Street Journal
Somehow, just screwing up my planning and reducing the RSA rental by a fourth was not enough for Jim White. All during the fight with Bronner, White was making veiled threats that he knew of unparalleled ethical lapses and investment failures by Bronner, and that he was going to tell all to the Wall Street Journal. White reasoned that such an expose directed to the national financial community would do Bronner the most damage. Everyone has a few bones buried out there, and I had helped Bronner bury a few myself. Thus the threat unnerved both of us.
As the months passed by with the threat hanging over his head, Bronner became ever more intractable. He and we at PH&J wondered what White could uncover, what lies he would tell, and how the Journal would play the story. Then for weeks we heard that Journal reporters were in Montgomery snooping around the Capitol on a witchhunt, and thus we knew White had indeed carried out his threat.
At long last, on February 4, 1994, the long dreaded article appeared in the New York paper. It was an in-depth, five column treatment of Dr. Bronner, complete with an artist’s pen sketch. But, lo and behold, the Journal uncovered nothing of substance. It seems that Bronner had become such a fair-haired favorite of the Journal that the article was rather favorable, despite all White’s allegations, and the story mostly rehashed Bronner’s financial triumphs.
While this brouhaha was going on in Montgomery, I was traveling to New York once a month to see about 55 Water Street, an RSA acquisition in lower Manhattan. On more than one occasion during these trips, some hotel functionary would frantically tell Bronner that Governor Jim Folsom of Alabama was trying to reach him by telephone. Bronner never slowed down to take or return the calls. The hotel staff was aghast. I was not. Some years later Bronner mused to me that Folsom could have been governor for ten years if he had not listened to that sorry Jim White.
The Real Estate Moguls
With Jim White in the press every day condemning the RSA’s further inroads into real estate, Aronov became emboldened and began punishing every state tenant who was scheduled to vacate his property. Whereas most landlords would relish and grant a one-year or month-to-month lease extension, the Aronov group required their defecting tenants to vacate their premises on the day their current lease expired, even if the RSA Union was six months away from completion. I recall that ACHE was forced to vacate One Court Square and make a temporary move to a slum address out on Norman Bridge Road. That double move probably cost the state of Alabama a half-million dollars.
The Children’s Trust Fund lease extended to within weeks of Union readiness, and that agency was put out of their leased space. Their files and furnishings were stacked in a truck during the missing days.
Neither Aronov nor Lowder were graceful losers, but I must confess that even before the last coat of paint was dry on the RSA Tower, PH&J was furiously working for Lowder and his Colonial Bank to renovate One Court Square (old Pizitz) to accommodate bank operations in the very space vacated by several of the departing RSA tenants. Yours truly was not part of our Lowder team, and I made a concerted effort to stay out of sight.
It took almost a year for the Bronner-Folsom-White acrimony to dissipate and allow our project to regain normality. Naturally I had to read the newspaper each morning to see which of them, if any, was going to stir up yet another issue, or make another accusation, but calm was finally the order of the day.
Then, just about the time that Bronner had resolved his issues with Jim White, and the real estate barons had quieted down, it was time for a new election. Fob James decided to run for governor again, this time as a Republican. One of Fob’s campaign cries was wasteful government, and he began to denounce the RSA office buildings as opulent waste. Fob’s mouthings did have an element of truth, and he was an irksome irritant to Bronner and yours truly. However, no one thought he had a ghost of a chance to beat Folsom in the upcoming election, so we did not take him seriously.
But as we all recall, in November of ‘94 Fob won the governorship. The morning after the election I ran to Bronner’s office in a panic, asking if we were now going to face the ire of yet another governor. Bronner said fear not, that Fob was all mouth and would cause us no trouble. Subsequent events proved Bronner to be correct.
Six months later, when Fob James had been in office for three months, it came time to order the dedicatory tablet for the RSA Union, and I consulted Bronner as to which Governor to enshrine and credit on the bronze casting. Should we honor Guy Hunt, who deserved the credit but suffered a felony conviction? Or Jim Folsom who almost killed the project, but during whose term most of the construction was done? Or Fob James who publicly disdained the investment, but was in office when it was completed? A bitter choice, but Bronner finally ordered that the tablet say “Completed during the term of Governor James”–that was a true statement, yet the reader is appropriately warned that Fob deserved but little credit.
-Charles Humphries (“Peril and Intrigue Within Architecture”)