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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org