Did it take a pandemic to ignite Birmingham’s economy?

Another gorgeous autumn day in Vestavia Hillls
Another gorgeous autumn day in Vestavia Hills

The pandemic hit and unexpectedly a few of my friends’ children moved back  home to Birmingham—some temporarily and some permanently.

Cities like New York were in lockdown leaving many unfortunate souls imprisoned in their apartments or condominiums.

Most didn’t quit their jobs—they just came home to work remotely.

According to NPR , “As coronavirus cases continue to spike and working from home seems permanent, many Americans are planning to set off to live in new places.”

“An astonishing 14 million to 23 million Americans intend to relocate to a different city or region as a result of telework, according to a new study released by Upwork, a freelancing platform.”

“Big cities will see the largest outmigration, according to the survey. About 20% of respondents planning to move live in a major city.”

Birmingham an attractive option

It’s to Birmingham’s advantage that we didn’t experience crazy growth like Atlanta and many of the trendy southern cities like Nashville, Austin, and Charlotte that are dealing with big city problems like lack of affordable housing and congestion.

Birmingham has plenty of green space, gorgeous weather, and a quality of life our children may not have experienced since they left home.

Zoom Towns

According to a recent article in Fast Company, Zoom towns are exploding.

“First, there were boomtowns. Now, there are Zoom towns…”

“The coronavirus pandemic is leading to a new phenomenon: a migration to ‘gateway communities,’ or small towns.”

“Nearly 60% of employees are now working remotely full or part time, according to a recent Gallup poll. Nearly two-thirds of employees who have been working remotely would like to continue to do so, according to that same poll. That would seemingly give workers a lot more flexibility when it comes to where they call home.”

Construction all over Birmingham

You might have expected Birmingham to revert to its historic malaise, but the Birmingham Business Journal (BBJ) says there have been so many announced projects that real estate experts are being challenged to keep up.

The BBJ published a piece with the details of 37 announced projects.

Lowe’s $40 million, 1.2-million-square-foot facility; three Amazon facilities totaling almost 600,000 square feet;  a $40 million Carvana distribution and fulfillment center, and a FedEx $40 million, 290,000square-foot distribution center.

Additional projects include the mixed use development at the old Carraway Hospital site; the $200M Arbor Terrace redevelopment at the former Trinity Medical Center; Southtown Court to redevelop the outdated  Southtown housing units, and the Powell Avenue Steam Plant in midtown. (The Southtown Court demolition was just put out for bids)

In addition to these ten, The BBJ identified 27 others.

Downtown and Southside

Robert Crook, founder and owner of a commercial real estate company specializing in commercial properties primarily in Birmingham’s urban core wrote a column for ComebackTown in October on how he and his fellow commercial real estate colleagues have been slammed with new business since the pandemic.

I had an opportunity to attend a walking tour of Parkside/Midtown the week before Thanksgiving.

We began our tour at 2nd Avenue South and 14th Street next to Regions Field to the west side of Railroad Park and walked to the Rotary Trail at 20th Street.  There are projects planned, completed, or under construction from I-65 to the Rotary Trail—and ultimately they will stretch from Titusville to Avondale.

And the State of Alabama just announced  awarding $50 million in funding to the planned UAB Genomics building.

Officials with the UA System and UAB say this $75 million development will likely transform our  region—given UAB’s ambitions in genomic medicine.

This is difficult to comprehend as our Birmingham region has been stuck in a rut since the 1960’s and where Jefferson County has had zero population growth for 50 years.

My intent is not to take lightly the burden the pandemic has taken on the lives of many folks, but when COVID hit– many of us thought this might be the end of Birmingham’s future—but the momentum has shifted drastically in Birmingham’s favor.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  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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4 thoughts on “Did it take a pandemic to ignite Birmingham’s economy?”

  1. This is a big “maybe but probably not” dream for Birmingham. The truth of the matter is this. Yes some move home to be closer to family, but just as many (maybe more) leave Bham to go other places to be close to family too.

    Also, when you talk about the low cost of living; I analyze it like this. If I were to need to move to a lower cost of living area, I – and many like me- would prefer to move an 30 mins away from Austin, Nashville, or Atlanta as opposed to 20 mins away from Bham. Those of us who have had a taste of living in a major city don’t want to leave that amenity and Bham just doesn’t have that allure.

    So, if I live in say Dallas, Austin, Nashville etc, there are plenty of lower cost options 30 – 45 mins away and yet I still get the benefit of being close to those great cities. But you go 10 mins out side of Bham in most directions and you’re in, well, almost rural Alabama and Bham doesn’t offer the future upsides these other cities offer to young people..

    Many won’t move back because they are scared their nice work-from-home job might go away and they do NOT want to find themselves planted in Bham where they probably won’t find near the employment options/opportunities afforded from being in the bigger “further along” cities.

    1. Mack, much of what you say is true. However, there are other reasons Birmingham might be preferable. Many young people have family in the Birmingham area and they might prefer for them to be nearby. Also, people call Birmingham the 20 minute city because you can travel almost anywhere in less than 20 minutes. Traffic and congestion are major quality of life issues in bigger cities. Birmingham still has that small town feel. People are generous, nice, and helpful. And as indicated in the article, Birmingham seems to be showing some real signs of life. I personally wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

  2. All true David, but those qualities are not unique to other places as well, especially now with less traffic everywhere. People are also very nice in other places as well. It’s not like Birmingham has the upper hand on having nice people.

    Many of the amenities you speak of in Bham are NOT in low cost of living places. If you’re talking about Homewood, Mountain Brook, Vestavia, the cost of living there is very similar to what you find in the other cities mentioned. So once you get out of that enclave, you’re in “normal Alabama” where cost of living is also similar to 30-45 mins outside of those other major cities. As such, most would prefer to stay 30 mins from Austin, than move 20 mins from Bham.

    Of course family issues do tie in and could help Bham as many move closer to family. That might stick, I’m not sure. But when everything goes back to normal, you might see another exodus back out as jobs come calling from Atlanta, Nashville, Dallas, Austin, Houston, etc etc. People HAVE to migrate to where the jobs are plentiful (I’m mainly speaking of white collar corporate jobs).

    Lastly, I’m not sure the perceived growth is really a good thing… You’re only bringing in people looking for cheap housing. That’s not necessarily healthy for the city.. Kinda like when Houston gets New Orleans transplants due to hurricanes. Those are not the transplants we want other than boosting our population numbers which seems to be a very sensitive topic in Bham.

  3. David, I’m late to this discussion, but I’ve been meaning to tell you that this is an excellent, well-researched, and well-thought-out piece.

    I understand and agree with some of Mack’s skepticism, but I’m also a born optimist. With all of its horrific faults, there is a beauty and certain magnetic charm to this place.

    When I worked at UAB I learned of a traditional “sneaky” practice for recruiting big-time doctors and scientists to Birmingham. I’ll use Dr. Rachel Booth’s story to illustrate. She told me that she and her husband were very happy in Pittsburgh (I think). The School of Nursing had targeted her as their #1 prospect for the dean’s position, but they didn’t tell her. They invited her down for a pretty extensive consulting gig, and, on several weekends, had her husband down to be wined, dined, and to get to know the city. A few months after she went back, they offered the job to her. She said that, without UAB’s brilliant manipulation, her husband would absolutely rebelled against moving to the ‘Ham. By then, they were both in love with the city.

    All the stats are great, but I think this mysterious “charm” what you’re really capturing here. Thanks for your unrelenting optimism!

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