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.
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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).
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