(Editors note: This article is not about Mt. Brook–it’s much broader than that. It’s also not about the City of Birmingham–it’s about our metro. Today we examine the topic no one wants to discuss.)
A young, well-respected business man approached me after a civic club meeting. He wanted to talk about our region’s lack of progress.
Soon the conversation turned to our 37 municipalities in Jefferson County.
He said he understood how competing cities hurt our region, but as a Mt. Brook resident he was not about ready to sacrifice his children’s education for better government. I said I understood–my children attended Mt. Brook schools also.
I quickly emphasized, however, that I wasn’t necessarily advocating we combine schools or governement, but he did make me think.
I had always heard that historically much of Birmingham’s problems could be blamed on Northern businessmen who controlled companies like U.S. Steel.
Samuel Pullman, editor of the Richmond Dispatch, wrote*
“Birmingham was a “colonial economy” shaped by the influence of northern capital and the willingness of southern politicians to offer northern investors “cheaper money, cheaper taxation, cheaper labor, cheaper coal, and cheaper power” than they found in the North.”
But do businessmen in Pittsburgh deserve all the blame?
Charles E. Connerly wrote a piece titled, One great city or Colonial economy?–Explaining Birmingham’s Annexation Struggles, 1945-1990.
“Because school districts in Alabama are city based, white suburbs could create their own school districts, thereby completely avoiding racial integration. Mountain Brook, home of Birmingham’s economic elite and thus the Holy Grail of Birmingham’s annexation efforts, put this approach into practice…members of Mountain Brook’s elite could institute their own version of the colonial economy, profiting from Birmingham while keeping their taxes and children in their own separate and white city.”
Other states didn’t allow school systems to organize by city–so there was no advantage to splitting into separate cities as we did in Birmingham.
It was just announced that we’re losing another public company (Colonial Properties Trust). We can make excuses, but metro Birmingham now has 16 fewer public companies than it did 15 years ago. Cities with common agendas like Nashville are growing, adding jobs, and increasing the number of businesses headquartered there.
We can’t afford to allow our local governments to continue to compete with another and lose our businesses and children to other cities.
Many Birmingham business people must agree that too many competing governments are stifling us. The BBJ asked in a recent unscientific poll, “Would you support a unified metro government in Birmingham? Amazingly 64% said yes, 26% no, and 10% not sure. (371 responses as of June 9)
Charles Connerly concludes…
As a colony of both Wall Street and Mountain Brook, therefore, Birmingham was constrained…”
*Samuel H. Pullman to editor, Richmond Dispatch, January 1, 1897, quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South (Baton Rouge, LA, 1951, 1971), 310. For Birmingham’s place in the New South’s colonial economy, see Woodward, Origins of the New South, 299-302, 315-7;W. David Lewis, Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1994), 217, 498.
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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).