Our region’s future and the conversations we do not have

Charles Ball, Executive Director Regional Planning Commission
Charles Ball, Executive Director Regional Planning Commission

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Charles Ball.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

Recent news that Mercedes may be moving its U.S. headquarters to Atlanta or North Carolina should unnerve us.  Why- Because it is just the most recent reminder of conversations we are not having, and opportunities we continue to miss.

Foreign Auto HQs.  In 2006, Nashville lured Nissan’s U.S. headquarters from California.  And they accomplished this without an international airport or even one daily flight to Japan.  What they did have was a business community with an audacious, “can do” spirit and a Nissan plant down the road.  Japanese-owned Bridgestone Tire moved there in 1991.  So, why aren’t we talking about courting the headquarters of Mercedes, or Honda or Hyundai?  Georgia may be willing to offer up to $50 million for Mercedes.  We probably don’t have $50 million to offer, and we don’t have any flights to Germany.  But Atlanta doesn’t have a Mercedes plant 30 miles from downtown.  What do we have to lose?*

Here are a few other vital conversations we are not having in Birmingham:

Air Service.  Contrary to popular belief, an attractive airport does not necessarily equal improved service.  Just ask the folks in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.  When Southwest bought into the Atlanta market a few years ago, I assumed local leaders would understand this would be a threat to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth because of the number of Atlanta-area residents flying Southwest out of Birmingham.  I assumed wrongly.  Now, our passenger count and number of flights have declined significantly.  And to add insult to injury, we now have to fly to Atlanta or Nashville to get to the new Panama City airport from Birmingham.  Is this the best we can do?  How do we turn this around?

Scarcity of Industrial Sites.  While sitting in a local City Council committee meeting recently, I learned that we are running out of sites for new and expanding industries.  According to the speaker, the inventory is particularly low for sites with rail access.  So, if this is indeed the case, what is the solution?

Renewable Energy Jobs.  For the past seven years, Charlotte has worked to become the center for renewable energy engineering and manufacturing for everything from battery and electric car technology to nuclear and solar energy.  Little Rock area is working to become the manufacturing center for wind energy equipment.  What are we targeting?

The bottom line is that by not having robust public and private discussions on these and other important issues, we risk another 50 years of playing catch up to our Southeastern peers.  So, let’s start paying more attention to what’s happening around us.  Let’s begin using more of the audacity demonstrated with the DNC and World Games applications,  the Railroad Park/Regions Field construction, and lest we forget, the recruitment of Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai.  Time to wake up, talk more and start working some plans!

*Editor’s note:  Since Mr. Ball wrote his piece, Mercedes made the decision to move its headquarters to Atlanta.  Mercedes-Benz to invest $100M in Atlanta headquarters – Atlanta Business Chronicle

Charles Ball is a native of Birmingham.  He completed his undergraduate work at Birmingham-Southern and received his Masters of Community Planning from Auburn University.  Charles was appointed Executive Director of the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) in December 2006.  He is active with a number of community nonprofits, he serves on the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), and he is a member of the Rising Star Baptist Church.

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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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8 thoughts on “Our region’s future and the conversations we do not have”

  1. David, by inviting guest bloggers you give a forum to bright young visionaries like Charles Ball.  We need to hear from them.  Thank you for providing the exposure.

    1. Carlton, Thanks for your positive comments. Kind of you to take the time to acknowledge. I often only hear from folks who think me and my guest bloggers have gotten it all wrong.

  2. *

      Who knew? We need more details of the Mercedes-Benz move to Atlanta to establish their headquarters. What, if anything did we offer them to keep them here? What reasons did they give for moving to Atlanta? How does this effect our future relationship with Mercedes-Benz? Where is Elmer Harris when we need him?

  3. *I visited Philadelphia last year and listened to a presentation from their version of RPC.  They had the same issue of running short of industrial sites.  They did a very thorough assessment and catalog of all their industrial land.  This allowed them to make plans to consolidate some areas or prep and market them for redevelopment.  RPC or some other agency could do just that here in Birmingham.  Not all industrial companies are going to be as large as Honda or Mercedes.  Just driving along 20/59, one can observe hundreds of acres of vacant industrial land.  Do we really have a shortage, or do we just need to take a different look? I’m sure they are referring to shortage of industrial sites that could accommodate large distribution warehouses, but we also have a need for 10, 20, or 30 acres sites too. There are many abandoned pockets right around downtown.  We just need to present a vision for how they can be reused and supported.

  4. *I forgot to mention that I have a copy of Philadelphia’s Industrial Land Assessment if Charles wants to take a look at it.

  5. If someone needs an industrial, zoned heavy industry with rail  and interstate access in Birmingham, I have it.  Whether the city will permit heavy industry on property zoned for it is another matter entirely.

  6. *Jason- Thanks so much for referencing the Philadelphia assessment.  We are actually working on something like that now.

    Also, I was not necessarily referring to large industrial users.  We need good sites for the large and small, for existing and new industries.

    Bill- On the Mercedes front, I was referencing the move of their corporate headquarters only, which is currently in NJ.  From what I had been told and have observed over the last 40 years or so, these projects begin with either establishing a relationship with a company or expanding an existing relationship.  We already had a relationship with Mercedes.  We know them-they know us.  That sounds like an advantage, and it appears we chose not to capitalize on it for the HQ project.


  7. *Jason- I tried to find that report online, but to no avail.  So, I would appreciate being able to review yours.  Thanks


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