We need to have a tough conversation…

Tripp Watson
Tripp Watson

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

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

It’s time for a tough conversation about Birmingham. I know that we have been putting this off for a while, but time is running out.

We need to acknowledge that greater Birmingham is broken. It’s broken into about 35 different pieces.

Much like the region for which it is starting to draw its name, the Balkanization of Birmingham is hurting our prospects.

Put frankly, we simply cannot compete with other cities in the Southeast on an economic level. Our economic performance across multiple measures, including employment, wages, and population, is flat.

Report: Fragmentation hurting us

For the first time in recent memory, an organization commissioned a report to determine whether the root of the problem might actually be the framework of our municipal government. The results are in: Our fragmentation does not help us. In fact, there is now strong scientific and statistical evidence that suggests our fragmentation is actively hurting us.

We have seen this anecdotally. We’ve all heard the stories of the difficulty of applying for licenses across city boundaries. We’ve heard stories of how cities compete against one another to provide tax advantages to keep businesses within their city limits. We’ve heard the stories of projects perpetually stalled in bureaucratic red tape.

These anecdotes are now backed by scientific evidence that appear to chart a path of increasing irrelevance for the City of Birmingham and its metropolitan neighbors.

This is no longer in the realm of fiction or speculation.

Birmingham losing the top spot

The reality is that the City of Birmingham will cease to be the largest city in the State of Alabama within the next decade. There is a very real possibility that before we inaugurate a new president, Huntsville will have surpassed Birmingham as the largest city in the state.

While people on both sides of Red Mountain have hurled speculation and insults across the divide for decades, the people on the west side of Monte Sano Mountain will likely end up end doing the most damage to Birmingham in the long run. They’ll be waving as they pass us by, as we squabble, covered in coal dust.

This change won’t simply be an emotional defeat, it will permanently cripple the Birmingham metro’s ability to solicit, negotiate, and lobby for business relocations, tax credits, and favorable legislation at both the state and national level.

We have hope

Despite this bad news, there is hope, and it is coming from some interesting sources

The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama researched metro areas that faced problems similar to Birmingham’s. This study analyzed different techniques employed by metro areas of Denver, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Louisville.

Each metro area used surprisingly diverse solutions to the same central problem: fragmentation was hurting their growth. The different tactics that they used ranged from aggressive annexation to inter-municipality agreements, and several points in between.

These cities show that it is possible to increase governmental and economic effectiveness on the metro scale, without diminishing hyper-local character and direction.

Cooperation in these metros paved the pathway to growth and spurred projects that had stalled in the past or had never even been considered before.

Louisville, for instance, was able to accomplish the construction of not one, but two separate commuter bridges across the Ohio River within only a few short years after consolidating their city and county governments.

If you need a comparison, Birmingham could not even stop the Alabama Department of Transportation from remodeling 20/59 through its own city center.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves. Our metropolitan fragmentation is no longer a “feature,” it is a bug. It is actively hindering our ability to grow.

Time for action

However, wholesale consolidation is not the only, or even the best, solution for us. There have been a number of alternatives that have been successfully adopted and executed in other metro areas.

It is time that we take control of this conversation. It is time that we seriously consider the fate that inaction will mete on Birmingham if we do not. It is time that we start looking for solutions instead of pointing out problems. There’s never been a better time to take action.

First, read the Community Foundation report at http://TogetherWeProsper.org.

Second, contact your elected officials and demand them to take more steps to increase cooperation across our metro area. They will not act unless they know they have your support.

Finally, encourage your friends, family, and associates to make regional cooperation an issue in the upcoming elections.

Together, we can prosper.

Tripp Watson is an Entrepreneur Attorney at The Watson Firm. His practice caters to business owners and risk takers. Watson serves on the Strategic Advisory Committee for the Together We Prosper. He is a resident of Birmingham, along with his wife Kristen, and their two dogs.

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-Founder 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).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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9 thoughts on “We need to have a tough conversation…”

  1. Often, when Birmingham is being represented unfavorably in national statistics, we (Birminghamsters) immediately claim that the statistics are unfair. We make this assertion on the fact that the statistics are representing just Birmingham city and comparing us to a city like Jacksonville, FL that has incorporated all of its suburbs, bringing the more affluent areas with less crime into the picture. We say these are unfair comparisons (and they are). So, I think it would be prudent if we didn’t make similar mistakes in our comparisons.

    For example, you are comparing the population of Birmingham and Huntsville cities (not metros) and making the claim that Hunstville will overtake Birmingham. But the size of Birmingham city is about 146 square miles where as Huntsville is about 210 square miles in size, making Hunstville’s boundaries over 40% larger than Birmingham’s. Making claims like this is misrepresentation. This is why Jacksonville, FL is considered the largest and most populated city in Florida, but if you look at metro areas, it comes in fourth, behind Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, all cities that haven’t incorporated all their suburbs.

    1. MD,

      Your point is well-taken, and those statistics are often very skewed one way or another, which rarely paint Birmingham in a favorable light.

      That said, my point isn’t that the metro area will cease to be the largest, but the City of Birmingham will no longer be the largest city.

      However, the truth is that, when it comes to marketing the area to businesses and government, the Birmingham area speaks with 35 voices, not one. This makes it incredibly difficult to attract outside investment in our metro, which hurts every city in the area.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  2. This blog often talks about regional cooperation. I think this is an incredibly important topic and one our region should definitely focus on. But I don’t believe that regional cooperation alone will solve most of our problems. I believe our biggest problem is where the population in our region actually live.

    Birmingham has an incredible amount of sprawl. While the Birmingham city is about 146 square miles (which is very large for our small population), the metro area is 5,298 square miles, for just over 1 million people! Population is not the best metric to look at when considering what makes a city vibrant and livable. Instead, we need to be looking at our population density, that is how many people live in a certain area.

    Higher population densities give more people access to the services they need. When populations are near each other, there is less need for duplication of services. Public transit isn’t feasible until you have a minimum required density. Walkable and vibrant cities don’t work until you have enough density.

    Birmingham city has a very low density of 655 people/square kilometer (1450 people/square mile). This is one of the lowest in our country for large cities, and the United States city densities are way below most cities throughout the world. The Birmingham metro is incredibly low, with about 32 people/square kilometer (213 people/square mile)! It is virtually impossible to provide any level of service to densities that low and a population as spread out as Birmingham’s.

    Just to compare some other cities around the world:
    – Paris, France: 21,603 people/square kilometer
    – Manhattan, NY: 18,908 people/square kilometer
    – Mumbai, India: 28,508 people/square kilometer
    – Chicago: 4,614 people/square kilometer
    – Amsterdam: 3,320 people/square kilometer
    – Atlanta, GA: 1,345 people/square kilometer (yes, even sprawling Atlanta has higher density than us)

    And a few lower than us:
    – Nashville, TN: 512 people/square kilometer
    – Oklahoma City, OK: 360 people/square kilometer

    I recently wrote a web app that allows shows you where the population of Birmingham would have to live if we had the density of another city. For example, if the city of Birmingham (with a population of about 212,000 people) had the same density as Paris, France (21,603 people/square kilometer) instead of our low density of 655 people/square kilometer, then all 212,000 people would live in just Downtown, South Side, 5 Points, and Highland Park! This app is meant to bring to our attention how density affects our city and the services our city can provide to its residents.

    If you would like to compare Birmingham to more cities, you can check out the app here:


  3. All valid points. Perhaps the creator of this blog – Mr. Sher – will move into the city of Birmingham and be the change he wishes to see in this metro.

    1. For 50 years or more Birmingham City officials have been killing the city. That’s why people have fled “The City” leaving behind those that prefer to stay and get the hand-outs. Maybe Birmingham City should become small. The tech industry with high paying jobs and support industry jobs is growing Huntsville. I do not want the City of Birmingham representing me, my neighborhood or schools. Maybe it needs to fail really bad so it can rise….or maybe it can magically flush the swamp rats and boom but otherwise, neighboring communities do not want to be part of the City of Birmingham because of what it has become. Sad truth.

      1. I agree that Birmingham has had some bad elected officials over the years. But closing your eyes and running away while saying “not my problem” is irresponsible and won’t fix the issue. Instead you’ve drained the city of valuable resources (you!) and caused its services to fall into disrepair. If more people lived in the city, more people would vote, and we could possibly make a change.

        But, I want to go back to my argument above about density. My argument had nothing to do with our government or political boundaries. My point was that you can’t have a vibrant city with the low density we have. It doesn’t matter how good our elected officials are or how well the region cooperates, we are still going to severely limit how well our services work by spreading them out geographically.

        Public transit cannot be viable without density. Without public transit, a significant portion of the population cannot access jobs, education, health care, recreation, or social gatherings. Retail doesn’t work unless you have enough density with enough people to support it. Sewer, water, and other utility systems get very expensive when they have to be expanded many miles to support a small number of people. Public services like trash collection become expensive and inefficient when they have to collect through sprawling areas.

        Like it or not, for our region to be functional and economically stable, we HAVE to move closer together and increase or density. It doesn’t have to be the density of Hong Kong, but if we increased our metro density by 10x we would still have a lower density than most “low density” European cities.

    2. Now you know that will never happen. Mr. Sher is all talk and no action. I’ve asked for the better part of three years for him to present his plan for a unified regional government to regional area chambers of commerce and to regional city councils or to publish the plan on his blog, but alas his plan has not seen the light of day.

  4. It doesn’t matter how much time or work it took to put together a study that is on the fast track to nowhere. IF anybody truly wants to make this area better through regional government then I suggest they work on the last 2 items in the report. I think they were listed under Potential Obstacles.

    “If the consolidation is viewed as the takeover of the city by the county at-large, it would likely fail due to the opposition of city residents.” Yep…so somebody needs to figure out how to get the Bham city council and mayor on board as well as other civic leaders of the minority community. How is a bunch of white dudes from Over the Mountain going to convince a historically oppressed community that what they are selling is NOT snake oil?

    “Meanwhile, the persistent climate of conflict at Birmingham City Hall and the current controversies over the management of city entities, such as the Birmingham Water Works Authority, has reinforced suburban mistrust of the political leadership of the City of Birmingham. If consolidation were perceived as a takeover of the county by the city government, it would likewise fail to attract support among suburbanites.” On the flip side how are ya’ll going to convince the good folks that have fled Bham that they need to go back to the very place they struggled to escape? How are you going to convince folks they will be safe living under the “protection” of a Birmingham service (PD/FD)? How are you going to keep these folks from simply starting a new wave of “White Flight” to Shelby County to escape the reachings of the Bham regional takeover?

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