ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Norman Jetmundsen. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
Greater Birmingham reminds me of a patient who goes to see his doctor.
He says, “Doc, I have good days and bad days. I look at people around me and they seem to be healthier, have more energy, and be in better shape.”
The doctor examines him and says, “You do have some health problems, but if you’ll commit to lead a more disciplined life and eat healthy and exercise, then I think you’ll be as fit as anyone and lead a long, healthy and vibrant life.
And, you have to address your health holistically, because if part of you is not healthy, it affects your entire body.”
The patient says, “Doc, that’s just too hard. I can’t change.”
Can Birmingham change?
Birmingham seems a lot like that patient. We have wonderful attributes, but we also have issues holding us back from being a flourishing community.
Other cities have done the hard work of making needed changes, and they are growing and prospering.
Although many good things are happening here, Birmingham is still lagging behind. With 35 municipalities who compete with each other for businesses and incentives, schools that are failing, a county commission elected by districts, and a lack of home rule (just to name a few), we have a built-in framework for problems.
Change is necessary; maintaining the status quo should not be an option.
Birmingham on the rise
Birmingham is on the rise. Great things are happening.
Downtown is changing dramatically, and you can sense a rise in civic pride here. Birmingham is one of the most philanthropic communities in the entire U.S., which speaks well of our citizens and both their generosity and their commitment to those less fortunate.
It is a beautiful place and a great place to raise a family. With just a few fundamental changes in our governing structures, we could be on our way to a better and more secure future.
So, let’s talk about a wish list for Birmingham. Here’s part of mine:
1. Accomplish some type of consolidation of municipal services and mutual cooperation among municipalities.
2. Develop and implement an agreement by all municipalities not to steal businesses away from other municipalities. How many millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on incentives to move businesses around the Birmingham Metro area without creating any new jobs?
As a first step, there are ways to create greater cooperation that do not necessarily involve consolidation. The one thing we cannot do is maintain the status quo.
3. Revise the election of County Commissioners so that the President of the Commission is elected County-wide and, therefore, is accountable to the entire county. That will ensure that the President will have the entire county’s best interests in mind, instead of just his or her district.
4. Address our public education system where schools are failing. Every child should have access to a good education regardless of their zip code or financial status.
In addition, where teaching methods are outdated, we have to be willing to embrace new methods of learning. Where teachers are ineffective or schools are failing, we must focus our resources and best practices on these schools.
Each person does not learn in the same way, and traditional classroom teaching does not reach every student. We must embrace new methods to help students learn in ways they can understand, and give every child the training necessary to have a vocation and a base of knowledge with which to navigate their adult lives.
Like the patient’s health, if part of our community has failing schools, then our whole community suffers. We all have a vested interest in seeing that our education system is solid throughout our metro area and that all children have the opportunity to learn.
5. Instead of talking about building more prisons, address systematically the root causes of crime and give people hope for the future: drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, and lack of education are great places to start.
In Alabama approximately 15% of our citizens are functionally illiterate. The recidivism rate in prisons is around 75% and about 65% of Alabama prisoners read at a 4th grade level or less.
But if a prisoner learns to read or gets the equivalent of a GED while in prison, their recidivism rate is about 40%. There are proven steps that we can take to prevent crime and give people hope and purpose for their lives.
6. Jobs, jobs and more jobs. The constant refrain when people talk about Birmingham’s future is that we need more and better jobs.
This is necessary for growth, but it’s also important so our children and grandchildren will want to stay and raise their families here.
From 2007-2015 Metro Birmingham had zero growth in jobs, while other cities experienced solid job growth. The Birmingham Business Alliance is making great strides, and we need to support their efforts, but we must do better.
If we solve some of these other issues, attracting companies and more jobs to this area would be much easier. If we fail to take these steps, we can rest assured that other cities will be delighted to continue to grow at our expense.
7. Host a summit with Federal, State and local leaders to discuss openly and civilly the issues facing us and holding us back, in an effort to create a unified vision for Metro Birmingham and a more cooperative spirit.
8. A number of people, organizations and non-profits are already focused on addressing many of these issues. Yet we are hampered by out-of-date governmental structures that hold us back.
9. Finally, my wish is that 10 years from now our check-up will show that we have accomplished the hard work necessary to create and maintain a healthy, economically-sound and growing community for all citizens.
Norman Jetmundsen has lived in Birmingham most of his adult life. He’s written two novels based on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Norman and his wife, Kelli, live in Mountain Brook and have triplet sons.
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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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