The one big thing Birmingham could learn from Nashville

David SherHow’s it possible for similar Southern cities three hours apart to have totally different outcomes?

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.

Click here to read The Tennessean article on Nashville’s 1963 consolidation.

And click here to read  The Tennessean article on how difficult it was.

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).

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6 thoughts on “The one big thing Birmingham could learn from Nashville”

  1. *if you do any kind of business where your company travels all over Jefferson County (such as construction or delivery), you actually deal with the County government, plus the governments of 34+ municipalities, all of who want you to have a business license, pay their local taxes, etc.  All of these municipalities are competing fiefdoms, each with its own layer of overhead (e.g., a separate Mayor and Council, separate town halls, police and fire, etc.).

    It may seem sentimentally cute, but financially it is a recipe for fiscal disaster.

  2. David,

    Good article, great writing. It’s persuasive and I can’t think of any reason why this shouldn’t be done except for one: FEAR. 

    For example:

    Do Mountain Brook taxpayers fear their taxes will be siphoned away from the Mountain Brook community and dilute the high level of city services and schools they currently enjoy? Mountain Brook has been called “The Bubble” by a friend of mine. If it consolidated with the rest of JeffCo, would the bubble burst?  Did Nashville’s or Louisville’s consolidation contain any provision for addressing this concern?

  3. Fear is not the operative word. Power is. Many, if not all, of the powers that be in most of the surrounding communities simply do not want that power diluted. There are Mayors, City Councils, Police Departments, Fire Departments, etc., who enjoy being the focus of power in their communities. 

    The key to unifying all of the metro governments into consolidating into one government with related infrastructure is a daunting task. 

    The first question to ask is “Who is willing to give up their current position in favor of consolidation?”

    My guess – not a single person. 

  4. *It’s funny you write this article, i have been saying this for years. I love nashville and visit a few times a year. But i Love my Birmingham. I truly think a unified government (isnt that everyone dream) could help birmingham to grow. Instead of fighting between cities.

    Secondly to touch on JimfromBham’s  My company is in that boat. It’s a nightmare and costs us a fortune. We have 25 bus. lic., bonds in each city, etc.  But the worst city to deal with….Bham. Their city hall and politics is ridiculous to say the least.

  5. *David, so good to hear from you. There are all kinds of issues from racial to losing lack of control.  However, there is a bright spot.  As the older generation moves on, I feel people are much more open to change.  Please continue to comment.

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