Ouch! Birmingham has no Chamber of Commerce

Frank Young
Frank Young III

Today’s guest columnist is Frank Young.

Yes, you read the title right.

Birmingham has no Chamber of Commerce.

Twelve years ago, a small group of Birmingham business leaders decided to scrap the 122 year old Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and create a hybrid organization called the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA).

The objective was to establish a streamlined economic development organization through a merger of the old Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, Region 2020, and the Metropolitan Development Board.

Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Homewood, Mountain Brook and Shelby County all have chambers—there are at least 25 in our region—but none for Birmingham or metro area.

All our metro competitors enjoy active, effective, regional Chambers-– Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Memphis; and yes, even Huntsville.

Are we somehow different?

As a past Chairman of the Chamber and a lifelong Birmingham booster I was disappointed with the decision to eliminate our Chamber and even more disappointed with the outcome.

The BBA has shrunk in size from over 4,000 dues paying members at the Chamber peak to just a few hundred now, along with a commensurate reduction in funding and staff.

In fact, according the Birmingham Business Journal’s Book of Lists, the BBA has 567 investors (they don’t call them members)—far less than Shelby County (1,200), Vestavia Hills (1,182), or Hoover (1,000).

Words like ‘investor’ or ‘member’ have meaning.

A ‘member’ conveys that if you join an organization, then you will have a voice in the decision-making. Without a membership voice, an organization that at one time boasted over 30 active, member-driven committees soon became a shadow of its former self. Thousands of small businesses and individuals who enthusiastically supported the Chamber for years were left without an organization to network or interact with.

Historically, decisions at the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce were made on a “bottom-up” basis. You joined as a member and you were encouraged to join a Chamber committee. Whenever a committee reached a consensus on a need for action, it would submit a recommendation to an elected board of directors. Then the board would vote the matter up or down. Additionally, votes of the entire membership were taken at key times to further identify the membership’s take on a controversial issue. Large, midsized and small businesses and individuals all had a voice in policy decisions and an opportunity to join committees and develop business contacts through multiple business and social networking opportunities.

No longer. Essentially, decisions are now made by a few major ‘investors’ who are given seats on an Executive Committee. While I have no doubt that they are well meaning, they are not reflective of the voices of the many types and sizes of businesses and diverse interests in our metro. Is it any wonder that support of the BBA has shrunk to such a low?

Despite a resurgent Birmingham driven by private forces, an excellent mayor and local philanthropy, not only did the BBA not show itself to be much of a factor, but the economic development gap between us and our regional peers didn’t close in the past 12 years.

Do we need to revisit the need for a regional, broad-based organization to express the policy goals of our community? Opportunities await. For example, such matters as the once-in-a-lifetime massive Biden infrastructure bill are now being debated. Astonishingly, there is no BBA-led effort to prioritize what our metro would like to get out of this bill and no effort to take that message to Washington and Montgomery. Is this acceptable? (For those of you keeping score on Huntsville’s growth vis a vis Birmingham’s, you can be sure that Huntsville will be lobbying like mad for all they can get.)

Given the fractionalization of governments in our metro, I think we need an effective, regional Chamber of Commerce more than Huntsville; heck, maybe more than any other city in the nation.

Historically, a regional Chamber had been critical to many signal accomplishments–more nonstop flights into and out of BHM secured by the Chamber’s Aviation Committee, the saving of Vulcan, the creation of Leadership Birmingham, the effort to bring Olympic soccer to Birmingham in 1996, the creation and funding of Crimestoppers, the ten year lobbying effort to build Corridor X/I-22 and ongoing efforts to corral elected leaders throughout the seven county region to achieve consensus on key business issues.

Why am I’m I writing this column now?

Our BBA is going through a major transition. It recently hired a dynamic nationally recognized CEO and now has a generational opportunity to reinvent itself.

A reimagined BBA that fully embraces an involved “membership” — and addresses regional policy matters as well as economic recruitment could be the catalyst that our Birmingham region needs to move forward.

Frank Young III, a local attorney with Young Law, LLC, is a past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and Operation New Birmingham (now REV Bham) as well as the former head of the Chamber’s once powerful Aviation Committee. He was also the first president of the Freshwater Land Trust and treasurer of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

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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 to your group for free about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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9 thoughts on “Ouch! Birmingham has no Chamber of Commerce”

  1. Thanks for this Frank and David! It tells us important facts. It suggests important responses. A new generation of BHM civic leaders needs to know what has worked in the past, and what can work again. Let’s not miss this once-in-a-generation opportunity that a massive infrastructure bill can deliver. My fingers are crossed.

    1. Frank & David,
      I recall the time when our Birmingham Area Chamber was one of the largest, most active, and effective organizations in the nation. The Downtown Action Committee was another group of leaders that made a positive difference in our city.

      I am hopeful that the enthusiasm and success of those entities might be revisited soon and serve to put the real “magic” back into our beloved Birmingham.

  2. I worked with Frank when both of us were young back in the 1980s. We had a vibrant Chamber with successful membership drives under Tom Cosby and I was a Chamber staffer under Bill Tillery. It was a different world. I remember a particular membership campaign contest against Atlanta and Birmingham won, thanks to Tom and Buffalo Rock’s Jimmy Lee, Jr.!

    Yes…Birmingham needs to start over! We are woefully behind all the representative cities our size in the southeast as has been stated ad nauseum.

    Thank you, Frank, for stepping up and stating the truth. Coming from a past leader, it means a lot. Let’s hear from Birmingham’s other leaders emeritus…you know who you are.

  3. I think you, Frank Young, have hit the biggest and most valuable nail on the head that i have yet read in the blog!

    Could that change actually have sent away business HQ’s we have lost and caused a failure to attract new ones? I think it could have well done so!

  4. Thank you Frank for an insightful column that addresses a critical issue for the future growth and success of Birmingham. As you point out, the Balkanization of political leadership in the metro area makes it even more critical that businesses of all sizes have a unified voice—and a place at the table to initiate and foster region-wide progress. As a long-time and the active member of both the Chamber and the BBA I regret the decline in the advocacy of a broad spectrum business community addressing opportunities for the future and in a position to pursue such opportunities aggressively.

  5. Frank Young is right.

    Remember when Dr. Ray Watts killed the UAB Football team on 12-2-2014? Three days later, on 12-5-2014, the BBA, attempting to prop up Ray Watts and the killing of UAB’s Football team, issued a letter of “strong support” for Ray Watts. The BBA was doing the bidding of forces in Tuscaloosa with no regard for the damage done to UAB and the Birmingham community.

    BBA executive committee affirms ‘strong support’ for UAB and …https://www.al.com › news › birmingham › 2014/12

  6. I well remember that moment of giving in to Tuscaloosa. That indeed did put into question the purpose and effect of the BBA.

    More of this is less city, in every way, not business alone but even the quality of life itself.

  7. You hit the nail on the head, Frank. I was an active member of the former Chamber, chair of one of the Executive Women’s Roundtables, and had served on numerous committees. The BBA killed off the roundtables and adopted what was essentially a pay-to-play structure. The more money you “invested,” the more say you got. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but you still have to provide a way for all businesses to participate. For small and micro businesses, the BBA just wasn’t worth the “investment.” There was no place for us to gather together to elevate our collective voices, and without a seat — or even adequate representation — at the table with the big boys, we just got nothing out of it. We are in desperate need of a REAL regional Chamber of Commerce that represents the needs of all businesses, not just the few hundred large companies still paying to sit at the table by themselves.

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