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.
Birmingham’s new mayor has some very definite ideas about his priorities upon taking office—dealing with the city’s crime problem, revitalizing the neighborhoods and making sure city government is efficient, effective, transparent, accountable and citizen-friendly.
But what about dealing with the issue of regional cooperation as a priority?
For Randall Woodfin, not so much.
In fact, when asked directly whether he thinks the lack of regional cooperation in Birmingham is a problem, he says flatly, “No, regional cooperation is not holding us back.”
However, as is often the case with Mayor Woodfin, the answer is more nuanced than it may first appear.
Days before being sworn in as mayor, Woodfin spoke to a gathering of the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists in a wide-ranging discussion touching on crime, drugs, economic opportunity, schools and more.
When the conversation turned to issues of regional cooperation for the Birmingham metro area, it was clear that is not at the top of his to-do list. But it is not because he thinks it’s a bad thing. The mayor says strongly that the city of Birmingham needs to straighten out some of its own problems before reaching across to other communities.
As he sees it, it’s like a neighborhood resident who wants everybody else to take care of their property, even if he isn’t taking care of his own. “If I take care of my own front yard, it’s easier to start talking to my neighbors. It’s hard to make my whole focus about what are we doing as a neighborhood and I’m not doing my own part of taking care of my own front yard.”
He points out many of the problems our area faces are regional in nature. “We’re all facing the same issues. Infrastructure issues, unemployment, crime.
“My own front yard is, what am I doing around workforce development and workforce training as it relates to our own unemployment numbers because our unemployment numbers are similar to the whole (metro) region.”
Woodfin points to the lack of job expansion in the metro area in the last few years, particularly when compared to other cities in the South. “Zero gain or growth. So, I got to do my own part first. What am I doing in that space. Same around crime, same around housing, same around infrastructure.”
According to the mayor, this does not mean he isn’t interested in building bridges across local governments. “I’ve already engaged, not just the governor and the other four mayors of the largest cities in the state, but I’ve already started to engage local mayors, county commissioners, the Jefferson County delegation. And then it’s probably cool to then talk to the other mayors whose cities reside in Jefferson County.”
And it certainly doesn’t mean the city of Birmingham going it alone, especially on big projects like a downtown football stadium. “We should either do the stadium or talk about something else. If we do it, I have a very fair, realistic expectation that other people will be at the table and represent those partners, UAB and the UA System, Jefferson County, the state. The city of Birmingham is not going to shoulder this because we can’t afford it. Not by ourselves.”
Mayor Woodfin knows making change won’t be easy and that it requires everyone concerned about improving Birmingham to adjust their attitudes, but he stands confident. “It needs a complete shift in culture. Can you do it overnight? No. Will we get it done? Yes.”
So, when it comes to regional cooperation, Birmingham’s new mayor says he wants to start working on getting his city’s house in order first, believing that’s the only way to begin addressing common problems across the metro region. As Woodfin looks ahead to reaching across governmental boundaries, it would be nice if entities surrounding the city would also take this opportunity to reach back to Birmingham. With a new mayor and reformulated city council, the time to launch a more collaborative and cooperative approach to local government has never been better. And wouldn’t that be different?
The mayor insists it has to be different, because there is no alternative. “It isn’t a choice because the people want it.”
Willie Chriesman is a Birmingham-area native and media veteran. His latest project is Á la Carte Alabama, a digital media venture celebrating food and drink in Birmingham and across Alabama.
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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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