Birmingham: Can we all get along?

Willie Chriesman
Willie Chriesman

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

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

“Can We All Get Along?”

It was a desperate cry from the late Rodney King who spoke those words in the wake of the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

But too often when that question is asked of local government leaders around here, the answer seems usually to be “no.”

We have a long history in the metro area of refusing to work together, even when doing so could bring significant financial and civic benefit.

Infamously, we lost $100 million of federal money in 2009 earmarked for improving local transit. All because local governments couldn’t come up with a plan to provide a 20% match and a steady revenue stream for the project. And it’s not as if our woefully inadequate transit system couldn’t use the cash. It still hasn’t figured how to get passengers to neighboring communities without going all the way into downtown Birmingham and out again.

It’s not as though regional cooperation hasn’t been tried. In 2005, the communities of Homewood, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and Irondale proposed building a regional jail to lower costs and increase efficiencies. It even got to the point where Birmingham was involved in the discussion and the old Century Plaza shopping mall was considered as a location. The idea of a regional jail may have looked like a pretty good one, but it was all but dead by 2011 because the municipalities couldn’t “get along” in figuring out a plan to get it done.

But regional cooperation can be done. Even here. The Jefferson County Library Cooperative is one example. It provides a network in which the 40 public libraries in Jefferson County work together to provide service to all of the county’s citizens, from Ensley to Mountain Brook, from Hoover to Trussville and all the communities in between.

There’s even talk of making another go at the federal transit money we lost out on in the last decade.

Why is it so hard for us to pull together as a region and work together on things that make sense for us to work together on? I once asked that question of an Over-the-Mountain mayor a few years back. He said it all came down to trust, trust among our various communities and their leaders.

If we could overcome that trust issue (or whatever it is that holds back regional cooperation), think of the areas where we could make huge strides forward—in transportation, business and industry, tourism, education.

One recent promising sign can be seen in the cities of Bessemer, Fairfield and Midfield teaming up to build a pre-K program that would serve children from all three districts. The school boards in those municipalities realize they can do much more for their children by working together than by going it alone.

A burgeoning system of trails, walkways and bike paths sprawling around the metro area and crossing many political boundaries is another sign that maybe, just maybe, we can do a better job of working together for our area’s future. It is likely more unified government around here will be long in coming, if ever. In the meantime, developing these cross-community alliances and partnerships may go a long way in achieving many of the same goals.

Recently, I heard another Over-the-Mountain mayor say there’s a lot more regional cooperation going on around here than people know. Isn’t it time we start seeing that cooperation work for us and for all of our communities?

Willie Chriesman is a Birmingham-area native and a veteran of the media industry. He works as a media consultant and writer/producer.

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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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