What Birmingham can learn from Ferguson Missouri

In September of 2002 Dave Adkisson, the then President of our Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce (now BBA), and I got up for an early morning jog.  We were two of approximately one hundred Birmingham political and community leaders who had traveled to St. Louis to learn about the city and the Edward Jones Dome—home of the St. Louis Rams.

It was really dark and foggy that morning and we got lost.  When we asked some local joggers for directions, they were curious  as to why we were in St. Louis.

When we told them we came to learn about their city, they responded with an incredulous, “You want to learn about St. Louis?”

Their response surprised us, but when the first speaker at our meeting later that morning talked about the history of St. Louis, we understood.

The St. Louis story sounds eerily similar to the Birmingham’s story.

The speaker told us that in the early 1900’s St. Louis was the 4th largest city in the U.S. and was on the verge of becoming the dominant city in the Midwest.  St. Louis had an opportunity to attract a major new airport, but got embroiled in local political infighting and lost it to Chicago.  O’Hare is now the world’s second busiest airport and Chicago is America’s third largest city.  Metropolitan St. Louis has since dropped to 19th.

The speaker lamented that St. Louis has historically suffered from low self-esteem and because the St. Louis region is so segmented, it has been unable to reach its potential.

St. Louis City is actually not in St. Louis County and St. Louis County is composed of 92 separate cities.  Also, St. Louis is on the border of Illinois-Missouri—so it is governed by two state legislatures.

The Birmingham story

In the 1950’s and 60’s Birmingham was on the verge of becoming one of the great Southern cities.  We got embroiled in racial turmoil, and at about the same time, we lost a major airport to Atlanta.  Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the world’s busiest airport and Atlanta is the 9th largest metro in the U.S.

Jefferson County is composed of 37 municipalities, our County Commissioners are elected by district, and because our State Constitution allows Jefferson County no “home rule,” our State Legislature makes all our important financial decisions.

Like St. Louis, Birmingham has historically suffered from low self-esteem and we often battle amongst ourselves–often along racial lines. Birmingham is the 49th largest metropolitan area.

Ferguson is one of 92 cities in St. Louis County

Well, as you know, recently things have not gone well in Ferguson, but we haven’t heard much about St. Louis.  I’ll make you a bet that if the Ferguson incident had happened in Hoover, the media would be demonizing Birmingham.

Birmingham and St. Louis have one thing in common.  We’ve both divided ourselves into mini-fiefdoms and the result has been disappointing for both of us.

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 Agency 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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2 thoughts on “What Birmingham can learn from Ferguson Missouri”

  1. One quibble – Atlanta didn’t actually beat out Birmingham in any kind of competition or contest for “the big airport.”  There was no decision by anyone outside of our two individual communities that bestowed the Atlanta airport on Atlanta.  What actually happened is that Atlanta built the airport they wanted, in response to what they thought were the needs of their community.  Birmingham did the same thing.  We didn’t “lose” anything to Atlanta.  We made our own decisions.  Just as we do today.

    I don’t think there was ever much chance that Birmingham could have had the major Southeast airport, instead of Atlanta, even if we had actually built the exact same facility.  Our populations were close by mid-century, but Atlanta was always bigger.  Even when our population was getting close, Birmingham’s economy was much smaller than Atlanta’s.  Optimistic Birmingham civic leaders had hoped that Birmingham could become the economic capitol of the South, but that just didn’t ever happen.  Airport traffic is generated by economic activity.  With a bigger economy, Atlanta was destined to have a bigger airport.

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