What fractured Birmingham can learn from Asheville

Emily Truncellito
Emily Truncellito

Today’s guest blogger is Emily Truncellito.

If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

Editor’s note: This piece was written as a response to Why would anyone want to vacation in Birmingham?

Nestled in the Blue Ridge link of the Appalachian Mountain chain is the tourist hot spot of Asheville, NC.

I lived in Asheville for over 20 years and worked in tourism there, witnessing the industry vacillate between incorporating the native population and excluding it.

On the surface, Asheville has happened on a winning formula: recognize natural resources, like gorgeous weather, therapeutic hot springs, and lovely vistas; add resorts, entertainment, and world-famous festivals; and package it all in colorful brochures in sunset tones with sanctioned slogans like “Keep Asheville Weird.”  Honestly, it’s an easy sell.

We’ve lived in Birmingham for four years, now, and I’ve given tourism a lot of thought – how could this city successfully tap into its resources to attract vacationers?  For tourism to grow here, Birmingham would have to focus on safety, forward-thinking, and vibrancy while remembering the resident population that would staff the industry.

I have not taken advantage of any of the multiple civil rights museums in the area because that fight is still too present and raw. Although civil rights education and preservation of that history is a vital part of our cultural responsibility, as a facet of tourism it serves a niche purpose, especially when outsiders cannot come here and see positive changes since the 1960’s, like they would see in some Southern towns.

They would see a deeply fractured community and the constant threat of violence at certain places on the Urban Civil Rights Trail, for instance.  As safety and solidarity improve, so will the number of visitors to our town.

As a resident of Bessemer, I’m reminded that the metropolitan area is chock full of evidence of industries that have fallen, and our tourist attractions reflect that: Sloss, Tannehill, Vulcan, etc. Again, it’s important to preserve those places for educational purposes, but as tourist attractions, they don’t really speak to growth.  They recall the fiscal success of a bygone era and highlight the differences between bustling municipalities of the early twentieth century and their downtrodden modern manifestations.

Furthermore, places like McWane are not kept in good shape. When a family plans a trip – even an educational trip – they want to see that a community takes pride in its institutions.

Birmingham doesn’t send a message of civic pride and joy to the rest of the region. Like Asheville, we have an abundance of natural resources that could grow tourism, provided they were sustained by healthy food options, great entertainment, a vibrant creative arts scene, coupled with the feeling that natives are enfranchised and participatory in these pastimes, as well.

As has been mentioned in ComebackTown before, Birmingham needs a brand, but the community needs to gather around that vision first. Plus, that brand needs to focus on the present and the future. What makes the town great now?

Unlike Asheville, Birmingham is a family town, so our brand and our tourism should reflect that.

Beautiful natural experiences? We have those. The potential for a signature Birmingham style, taste, sound, arts district, etc.? We could have those, as well.  More than reading about them in a brochure, however, outsiders need to see that local citizens enjoy a lifestyle that is enriched by those trademark elements.

Perennially, Asheville has struggled with a turnstile effect; visitors fall in love and move to the city, but become disenchanted with the lack of jobs, the high cost of living, and the day-to-day reality of life in a town that caters more to outsiders than it does its own.

There’s a valuable lesson there for Birmingham.  We shouldn’t try to copy other towns, but we can learn from them while making something that is uniquely our own and ultimately more successful if we’ll make those benefits accessible to the resident population.

Birmingham will become a destination city when we begin to believe in and manifest our potential.

Emily Truncellito is an educator and writer whose family moved to Birmingham to work with a local church. Emily’s organized several social and enrichment groups for home schoolers in the area.

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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).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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7 thoughts on “What fractured Birmingham can learn from Asheville”

  1. Emily, I am not sure what your interests are that BHM is not fulfilling. As I read your blog, I kept thinking, “she really needs to get out more!” Consider spending a weekend as a tourist in BHM. The BHM BBA/Chamber of Commerce has some great info. Every season brings different options and activities for all ages and interests. I’ll be happy to send you my list that I share with visitors.

    1. Maury, every city has a list of “things to do” but that doesn’t really make them marketable tourist attractions. If there notable tourist attractions in Birmingham, someone would have capitalized on it and made money. But the truth is, the tourist attractions in Birmingham are not unique or different than anywhere else not too far from here.

      Better mountains are just up the road.
      In two days, I can hike every trail in Birmingham.
      No really good running trail over a mile or so long.
      The Civil Rights Museum just doesn’t bring that much revenue.
      Museums, food, and shopping are nothing you cannot find in even more abundance in neighboring cities.
      Barbers, ok good one but only if you care about that.
      Recreational lakes, only a couple but again, most cities have that.

      This talk about Birmingham being a tourist destination is WAY premature. It has to have something tourists want to see first.

      1. I hear you. However, every time I am responsible for guests either on business or just visiting to see family and friends, I also hear how much they love coming to BHM and are “surprised” at our offerings. I know that Hamilton has not played here. But, we have some really good theater here. We have some wonderful venues–indoors and outdoors–for exercise, entertainment and food. (Just try eating on a rooftop in Chicago in December!) We don’t have a river or lakefront in BHM. I get it. But, we can make the best of our natural resources, and our creative and talented people.

        1. Yeah I agree. People do compliment BHM a lot but it’s normally because it’s not as bad as they pictured. People compliment every city. Not saying BHM isn’t worthy of any compliments! But tourism has to have a special attraction.

          Other than people in Mississippi, I don’t see a good reason for anyone out of state to travel to Birmingham except for Barbour and maybe Civil Rights and those are niche markets and generally not repeat visitors.

          Birmingham is just not a tourism city. I think our time would be better spent trying to get the lastest and greatest amenities and not be 10 years behind (Dave & Busters, TopGolf, premium movie theaters, premium bowling alleys). These are things that have been readily available in other cities for quite some time. Then you come to Birmingham and everything is 10 years prior..

      2. Do you want to run? Try Jemison Park in Mt, Brook, one of the nicest linear parks around. I start at Mt. Brook village, jog out to Mt. Brook CC and back, about 4 1/2 miles total. Resturants? In case you haven’t noticed Birmingham has become a real foody destination with people coming from all over the country to check out that scene. Diversity? I can’t say enough good things about UAB and the culture it attracts. Also in large part because of UAB, the tech scene here is growing by leaps and bounds which attracts a new younger group to downtown and all it’s new entertainment venues. In spite of what you may think, we do get a lot of tourists here for these reasons. After living in Atlanta for 35 years with its sprawl and traffic, Birmingham suits me just fine

  2. I am glad someone finally called out the Mcwane Center. It is sad that $2,000 and some paint would fix the majority of issues there and yet they have barely changed the first floor in 20 years.

  3. Some good thoughts here, but why not list specific things you’d like to see rather than generalizations? Also, I completely disagree with the McWane Center comment, not sure what that opinion is based on.

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