Did Birmingham blow its one big chance?

Alabama's four largest cities
Alabama’s four largest cities–Birmingham’s population has been in free fall

I got into a heated conversation with a good friend.

She told me she read that Huntsville may soon pass Birmingham as the largest city in Alabama–and was sure Birmingham would soon be relegated to second place.

This made no sense to me.

Who really cares if the City of  Huntsville is bigger than the City of Birmingham because Metropolitan Birmingham is nearly three times as large as Metropolitan Huntsville.

Huntsville’s not even in the same league as Birmingham. 

U.S. Census 2013 estimate

Okay, the cities themselves are close in size–but that’s only because we in Jefferson County divide ourselves into 35+ separate municipalities.  I’m not happy about our multiple municipalities, but Huntsville is still not Birmingham.

In 2000 Louisville, Kentucky became the last major city in the U.S. to consolidate county and city government.  Louisville’s big motivation was that Lexington consolidated its government and Louisville was about to become the second largest city in Kentucky.

Birmingham did have an opportunity in the early ’70’s to be one great city–but we fumbled the ball.

Birmingham could have been the largest city in the South

In 1970 when Mayor Vann was promoting consolidating the City of Birmingham with its suburbs, he said…

“I have estimated the population of the area included at 550,000… I believe that this would make the City of Birmingham the largest city in the South and would really give new impetus with Atlanta, vis-à-vis airports and other issues.

 I also feel that it would possibly make the (proposed) occupational tax unnecessary for the City of Birmingham.”

Vann’s ‘One Great City’ was defeated and the population of the City of Birmingham went into free-fall.

Birmingham’s population dropped 12% in the 60’s; 5% in the 70’s; 6% in the 80’s; 9% in the 90’s; and 12% in the 00’s.

It’s depressing that instead of Birmingham being one of the great cities of the South that we’re now debating whether we will be second in Alabama.

It’s not too late for Birmingham

Finally, in 2014 the population in the City of Birmingham reversed direction and had a slight increase.

Currently there are more than 2,000 residential units planned or under construction in downtown, Southside, and Parkside within the City of Birmingham.

Birmingham neighborhoods like Southside, Woodlawn, and Avondale are seeing a resurgence.  There are even 30-60 new homes being developed in East Lake.

And even more amazing, we’re beginning to have a meaningful conversation about how we might improve our segmented/dysfunctional governance.

Quite frankly, the young generation of Birmingham is not going to stand for the backward white versus black/rich versus poor rhetoric of my generation.

The youth is our future.

Yes, if you look at a 20 year history of Birmingham’s loss of population and Huntsville’s growth, you might come to the conclusion that Birmingham is in trouble.

But we in Birmingham are in the process of turning ourselves around and the best is yet to come.

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 co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  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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5 thoughts on “Did Birmingham blow its one big chance?”

  1. *isn’t this the Bernie Sanders mantra? Everyone sacrifices for the greater good? It’s still an unproven theory, tried, but as yet, unsuccessful. The history of Birmingham is one of corruption, ineptness, and missed opportunity, and that resume grows exponentially with time. What city benefits other than Birmingham? What do other cities risk? What do they stand to gain? The largest part of the conglomerate would be Birmingham city, that is the worst part of the equation. If the city was a good example of government and success it might be different, but instead it looks more like a pig in a poke. I think most non-Bham people probably feel this way, nothing to gain handing over the reins to a train wreck. 

    1. John, if we consolidated our local government then we wouldn’t be turning our governance over to the existing city government–we would have new elections and all areas of our region would be represented proportionately. There are other models of regional governance that are not as dramatic. Charlotte did a ‘functional consolidation’–major departments of government were divided between the city and county–so there was much less duplication. Pittsburgh created an executive branch with a county-wide election for Mayor so the county became much stronger. Denver attacks major projects through regional efforts. Segmentation surely is not working for us.

  2. *David, your last several columns have been dead on and deserve commendation. But I implore you to move into the city of Birmingham so that your actions speak louder than your words. I implore you to move to the city of Birmingham so things like this piece mentions become less of an issue. Until then, these columns cannot have any true legitimacy. 

    1. Birmingham Only–thank you so much for your comments. You have a strong passion for Birmingham! However, moving within the City of Birmingham defeats the whole purpose of my efforts. When I tell people where I’m from, I always say Birmingham. When I put the return address on a piece of mail, I always write Birmingham. When I travel out of state, I’m from Birmingham. I believe we should all be from Birmingham and we should organize our government to make that happens. On the other hand, you should be able to live in our suburbs and still be in Birmingham. One Birmingham, no matter how we structure it, would be better for all.

  3. *I saw that article too saying Huntsville will pass Birmingham….haha yeah right. I’ve lived there and the downtown is so dead it’s ridiculous. Just an attempt to take the spotlight off of Birmingham right now. Good try Huntsville. I give you one golf clap.

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