A challenge for the Birmingham Business Alliance

Johnny Johns, Immediate past Chairman of BBA

Let’s take one incredibly hard issue and prove we can solve it

Giant headline front page,–The Birmingham News February 28, 2012,  “Let’s take one incredibly hard issue and prove we can solve it.”

The article then quotes Johnny Johns, the then  Chairman of the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA)…

 “Johnny Johns, the Protective Life Corp. Chairman, president and CEO, gave a call of arms of sorts when he said this to 28 political, business and civic leaders who had gathered at The Birmingham News to discuss how to tackle metro Birmingham’s most pressing problems.”

“…So we all stand off and we talk, talk, talk…Let’s take one incredibly hard issue and prove we can solve it through compromise…after acknowledging that he was frustrated by years of failing to make progress toward solving the regions persistent issues.”

Well, it’s been almost a year and where’s that issue?

I’m not saying the BBA hasn’t tried—it has.

There’s not a greater leader than Johnny Johns and there’s not an organization that tries harder than the BBA.  But they can’t win.

Since that call to arms, the BBA put tremendous time and resources to help Jefferson County avoid bankruptcy.

Then they gallantly attempted to resurrect the occupational tax—but that ended in failure too.

Why does our State Legislature have the power to control the finances of Jefferson County?  And why can a single State Senator or a few State Legislators have the power to veto local legislation?

The corporate leadership says it’s impossible to fix government structure–so let’s not talk about it.

Actually it’s a waste of time to not to try to fix our government structure.

I’m not proposing unified county/city government. That might or might not be right for us. It’s true we are competing with cities like Nashville, Jacksonville, Louisville, and Charlotte with regional government, but there are plenty of other tweaks we could make.

The BBA paid a lot of money to an organization to develop a plan of action (Blue Print Birmingham). One of the significant, but not surprising findings, was too many government entities.

So we can try to fix the symptoms or we can take “one incredibly hard issue like government structure and prove we can solve it.”

Then maybe we can begin our comeback.

Let’s turn Birmingham around. Click here to sign up for our  newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is a partner in Buzz12 Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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21 thoughts on “A challenge for the Birmingham Business Alliance”

  1. Unless systemic changes are made, no amount of Railroad Park, craft brew taprooms, food trucks etc. can make Birmingham the kind of place it can and should be.  Visionaries and entrepreneurs can only go so far without a governmental infrastructure that works.  Thanks for refusing to let this one go.

  2. *functioning public transit is the issue to address. big empty buses rolling across town are not the only way to move the public. 

  3. *Mike, State is not allowed to fund public transportation because of our State Constitution.  All monies must go to roads and bridges.  Another example of government structure shutting us down.

  4. * Just as businesses and corporations reorganize their structure from time to time to align their staff, equipment and real estate to align these resources with their mission, governments need to do the same. Sometimes joint ventures and even mergers make it possible to achieve the mission. Governmental structure can often be changes incrementally with significant benefits for all concerned. 

    Example: Recent legislation that re-scheduled the City’s mayoral and councilmanic elections in the same year. Now city councilors cannot run for mayor without giving up their council seat. A significant structural improvement.  More are needed.

    1. Michael, your example of recent legislation that re-scheduled the City’s mayoral and councilmanic elections in the same year is a perfect example of the small steps forward we could take to improve government in our region.

  5. David,

    Like John, I hope you keep up this effort. In the long term it is the only way to solve our dysfuntional government. Maybe like eating a 16 pound steak you might need to do this one bite at a time. Find like minded leaders in smaller cities to merge,  How about Hoover and Vestavia?  How about Helena, Pelham and Alabaster?  Once you get rolling the big job gets smaller and may have a greater chance of being solved. Just a thought.

    1. Henry, sounds like a good idea on the surface, but Vestavia, Homewood, Mt. Brook, & Irondale had discussions for months to have a common jail and couldn’t get it done. Doesn’t bode well for municipal mergers.

  6. *As a native of Birmingham with 51 years experience  in the local commercial real estate business…..I fully agree that we must first address our fragmentation problem….before this area can become more than what it is today. There are no common goals….there are about a hundred small fiefdoms surrounding the city of Birmingham…..it’s just gridlock…. DOT can’t even  get a consensus for them to spend millions on our infrastructure (HWY. 280)….something is very  WRONG….and, it needs to be addressed NOW.

  7. *David,

    Many thanks for your efforts to create a dialog directed toward setting Birmingham on a positive track for the future.  Among all the many issues  THE FRAGMENTED GOVERNMENTS OF JEFFERSON COUNTY  seems to be the ONE issue that is most recognized and thought to be a hindrance to progress in our area.  Typical responses to any suggestion of tackling that situation is “it’ll never happen!”, “Not is our lifetime!”and “There are too many fiefdoms in which officials will not consider giving up power”.  In spite of all the known and perceived resistance perhaps this issue is the one that could have the most promise.  Because so many people recognize this problem, this may be the issue to which  individual residents of the county might be sensitized.  If the BBA chose this BIG ISSUE TO SOLVE a begnning point might be cataloging the many costs of fragmentation and then projecting the savings, improvements  and other benefits that would accrue  through some consolidation of municipalities or consolidation of municipal services.  Creating this index of costs, potential savings, positive improvements and other benefits would be a profesional undertaking that would not have to have approval of politicians.  It would give BBA a beginning point in communicating with the residents rather than trying to persuade politicians.  Who knows, maybe a catalog such as this might gain favor with some politicians. 

  8. *As an employee of Protective, I have had the pleasure of working with Johnny Johns for some time.  Sadly, since his very insightful comment almost one year ago, we have seen arguing on the Birmingham City Board, a dysfunctional school board that should have it’s own reality show, and a mass transit system that doesn’t.  Several things have to change, among them:  a new state constitution that allows fuel taxes to be used for mass transit and people willing to run for office who are not looking to improve their own positions, but to improve the city as a whole.  Not to sound like a “CAVE,” I fear that whoever tries to lead will be hampered by a constitution that doesn’t work and people who have agendas other than for the betterment of the area.  

      1. *And, David, here we are.  The gauntlet was thrown down, and I don’t see anyone having the where with all to pick it up.  For Birmingham to compete on a national scale it has to have, at least, a dependable mass transit system and a quality education system, and neither one of those is being mentioned by any of the city leaders.  Instead, the buses scrimp and beg for dollars just to keep the buses running and board are more concerned with keeping their jobs on the BBOE rather than improving the education these kids are supposed to be getting.  We moved here from Lincoln NE, and that city had both.  We like Birmingham and we really don’t want to leave it.  But the currently elected officials just leave me shaking my head.  

  9. *Sam probably can’t do much about public transportation unless State Constitution is changed to allow funding for it.  Constitution requires monies go to roads and bridges. Obviously there are issues with Board of Education, but the government structure is 9 board members representing each of their districts with no one representing entire system; 12 school systems within Jefferson County; most parents who could afford to move out of the system, have done so.  

  10. David, and to all of you in this conversation. Overall,  I hear some terrific, positive, entrepreneurial positions as to “that one thing” which we need to tackle. I don’t recognize any “cave dwellers” here. I am not, directly, a “player” in the the game of governmental, or corporate change. I am in the “business” of educating for college completion, students who, otherwise will not have much of a future because of chronic inequality, and lack of access to what middle and upper middle class families have at their disposal to prepare their children for their future. I am taking a laser beam of “classroom application in corporate Birmingham,” and aiming that beam at the chronic cancer of unmotivated (with great potential) urban youth. (Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School)  But having said this, on the horizon, why not get beyond the blog, (not abandon it) and use one of the established forums to get the issue out in the open, BBA, REV, Leadership Birmingham, the Birmingham Comprehensive Plan. I, for one. am willing to be part of leading this effort. When the regional and Birmingham City chambers of commerce merged into BBA, what was that process like? The challenge is very obvious, let’s face it with action.

  11. *Father Alex, thanks as always for your comments and for what you do for our children. The purpose of our blog is to begin a conversation on better government for our region.  However, the leadership of organizations like the BBA feel that change in our government is impossible–so we need to put our time, money, and efforts into other things. Many of us feel we are only treating the symptoms and until our leadership tackles the root cause of our problems we will remain stagnant.

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