Amazingly the fortunes for both Birmingham and Nashville changed drastically in one pivotal year.
The year was 1963—exactly 50 years ago.
1963 was the year the city of Nashville consolidated with Davidson County. In April, Nashville celebrated 50 years of unified government.
1963 was also the year that Birmingham became infamous for dogs, hoses, and church bombings. This year we celebrated 50 years of our Civil Rights history.
Nashville turned their city around and the folks in Nashville give full credit to their government unification. The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, in an article dated April 1, 2013 described Nashville in 1963:
Half a century ago, the founding fathers of Metro knew their city was coming up short.
Nashville and Davidson County operated separate, overlapping governments. The city’s tax base was eroding. Sewer lines and fire protection couldn’t reach many residents. Business owners who thought about moving here were not impressed by the bureaucratic headaches they had to endure.
“A particular company would want to come and locate in Nashville, and they would have to satisfy the requirements, the needs, the demands of two different agencies,” said Charles Warfield, an attorney who served on the commission that wrote the Metro Charter in 1961 and 1962. “It was proving to be not a friendly atmosphere for businesses to come into.”
As Metro government celebrates its 50th birthday this week, many people are saying thanks for the wisdom of Warfield and the other men and women who persuaded voters to fully consolidate their city and county governments, which no community in America had ever done before.
It’s difficult to believe, but in 1963 metro Birmingham was a good bit larger than Nashville. Today, Nashville is about 50% bigger and growing while metro Birmingham is treading water.
So Jefferson County broke off into numerous competing cities and the City of Birmingham shrunk—just the opposite of Nashville.
The Tennessean makes it clear that government consolidation was the turning point for Nashville:
The anniversary of Metro’s debut on April 1, 1963…coincides with a moment of extraordinary acclaim for Music City.
Nashville keeps landing on lists of the best travel destinations and best food scenes. The ABC television drama “Nashville” may be a prime-time soap opera, but it’s our soap opera, exploring the ambition and creativity that fuel the music industry while showing off our skyline and streets, nightclubs and neighborhoods.
And no less than The New York Times called Nashville “the nation’s ‘it’ city” in January.
I’ve spoken to numerous community groups and to thousands of people about creating a better Birmingham.
At the beginning of each presentation I ask the question, “Who thinks Birmingham has reached its potential?” No one has ever raised a hand.
Birmingham has always been called the “City of Perpetual Promise.”
It’s true we’ve had a good year in Birmingham. We received a great deal of positive national press while showcasing some of our big successes like Regions Field and Railroad Park, but we continue to lose our biggest businesses and our young people to competing cities.
So is it too late to consider some form of consolidated government? Many cities have done so since 1963—with Louisville completing their consolidation in 2000. It took twenty years and three votes, but they got it done.
Some sort of consolidaton is our only chance to be competitive.
Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll be so successful we might be able to have a daily newspaper just like The Tennessean in Nashville.
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 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).