ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Joe Adams. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
Growing up in rural Texas, I’ve always thought in terms of how many hours it would take to get to various locations, always cooped up in a car.
That’s one reason I’ve lived in cities most of my adult life—six years in Austin, two years in Dallas, five years in Nashville and my share of time in Houston.
The sprawl and traffic congestion in those cities makes complaints about Birmingham seem laughable.
But congestion isn’t the only reason I’m leery of growth as the best metric for success.
I’ve watched as some people in those places have been left behind when prosperity came.
A rising tide does not lift all boats.
In fact, some people drown.
Locals should ask, what’s in it for me
Rather than a rapidly growing Birmingham, how about a more prosperous Birmingham instead?”
I’m thinking about the people who live here now. Having more people, even more jobs, is not the same thing as being more prosperous.
San Francisco is experiencing the kind of growth that doesn’t serve everyone well. It puts pressure on the people already there as prices increase. Based on recent surveys, over 80 percent of the apartment dwellers there are interested in moving away from the Bay Area.
We hear similar concerns in Birmingham about gentrification, though the number of empty lots and vacant houses make that concern seem less relevant to our situation.
What’s relevant for many long-term citizens is whether they will share in the coming prosperity. That question does not have a clear answer, but locals should ask, what’s in it for me?
Not everyone is in the same boat, so to speak, and some have never even seen a boat.
It is not clear whether the excitement around developments downtown will spin off opportunities for a wide range of people, but things do look promising. There seems to be air in our sails as recent news about migration patterns and increases in construction employment look strong.
I hope that businesses multiply and diversify so that the odds of finding matching employment increase.
We must attract a wide variety of businesses
Economists tell us that many of the jobs that come with growth require advanced skills and education. However a lot of people in our existing workforce lack the skills and education required to take advantage of the best opportunities.
One of the most important differences between cities is the concentration of employment.
In the most dynamic cities, there’s diversity in businesses and in the skills needed in those businesses. It then becomes much less important to climb a single ladder to have economic mobility.
When skills matter–who you know matters a lot less. Attracting a wide variety of businesses can make that possible, but there is still going to be a gap between those who have marketable skills and those who do not.
The gap can seem insurmountable for some people.
Education is key
Unless everyone knows about the pathways to access education, training, and get the kinds of support that make people successful, many will miss out on the opportunities that may come.
Several organizations, like Alabama Possible, are trying to connect people with those resources, with student aid and educational opportunities.
It is a lot of work and often requires selling possibilities and creating aspirations for people who have not experienced a great deal of success or who do not see the potential in themselves.
The experience of poverty can create doubts and there is still a great deal of poverty in the city and a lot of doubters. We need an information rich environment.
Invest in our people
Around the world, the places where societies have invested in their people are more prosperous than the places where they have not.
When wealth comes from people providing goods and services, more of those people live better lives than when it comes from natural resources or businesses controlled by just a few people.
Producing goods and services requires an investment in people, not just equipment or land. It means an investment in education. And that investment is a long-term commitment that requires constant tending and renewal. It is not a get rich quick scheme for anyone.
In Birmingham, we know that schools are lagging, and some neighborhoods have limited opportunities for employment.
In 2015, voters in Birmingham expressed their confidence in the value of education, passing an additional three mill tax to promote access to a wider variety of educational experiences, for pre-K, arts, and music, programs with long-term benefits for students. Will those programs and services be enough? How do we make sure that economic opportunities are available to all of our existing residents? What else can we do to address the disparities so that everyone has a chance to benefit?
I won’t pretend that I have the answer to those questions, but people who are thinking about how to plan for growth in Birmingham need to keep the whole population in mind.
Joe Adams, a Native Texan, lives in Avondale and works at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. He serves on the board of trustees of the Governmental Research Association.
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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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