Huntsville is never going to be Alabama’s largest city

Tom Cosby
Tom Cosby

Today’s guest columnist is Tom Cosby.

There is a steady drumbeat in the clickbait news of how Huntsville is poised to overtake Birmingham as the state’s largest city.

While shocking in a man-bites-dog context, it is only true in the narrowest of contexts, that of comparing populations within a single municipality’s border.

 After all, what people consider “cities” to be these days are really metros, and when you compare Birmingham’s 1.1 million metro population with Huntsville’s 462,693 metro, well, you get the picture.  Bottom line, nothing is remotely about to change vis a vis the stature of Birmingham as our state’s largest, most powerful and prestigious city. And not to mention its business and financial hub.

If you need more proof that it’s all about the metro, consider this. Pretty much everyone knows that Atlanta (GA) has a population of around 6 million. But within its city limits are just 488,000. (Have you ever heard anyone, much less the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, cite Atlanta’s population at 488,000? Nah. Neither have I.)

Metro populations are what really drive resources. Birmingham’s metro population is the 50th largest in the nation while Huntsville’s metro ranks way down the list at the 115th position. This population disparity evidences itself in many ways. For example, Birmingham’s vastly larger population demands six interstate “spokes” to converge in the Magic City. By comparison, Huntsville has only one interstate connection, I-565, and it is just an orphan spur from I-65.

I dare say you won’t see anything in Huntsville anytime soon that will come close to Birmingham’s state-of-the art Protective Stadium with its 47,100 seats or the revamped Legacy Arena’s 19,000 seats. (Certainly not the Von Braun Center with its 10,000 seats.) And correct me if I’m wrong, but I haven’t heard that their new Toyota Field’s 7,000 seats has won any national baseball field design awards like the Barons’ elegant Regions Field with its 8,500 seats.

Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM) still reigns supreme as the state’s largest airport in terms of passenger traffic, with 112 daily flights serving 3 million passengers annually. On the other hand, HSV has 40 commercial passenger flights a day and serves 1.2 million passengers annually.

With all this breathless media buzz about Birmingham being overtaken, I decided to take a trip to Huntsville to see for myself. As soon as I turned off I-65 onto I-565 headed to the Rocket City, I entered a flat, featureless landscape that reminded me of the Mississippi delta, but without the blues music soundtrack.

However, as I passed Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center, even the Birmingham booster in me had to concede how impressive that was. And a trip to the Huntsville Visitor Center also impressed; helpful, well trained greeters informed me that Huntsville had the state’s largest number of craft brewers with 12. (There must have been more descendants of all those German rocket scientists than I would’ve thought.)

But the more I looked around, the more I saw both small and large vestiges of Birmingham everywhere. Of course, one would expect to see Birmingham’s Regions Bank casting its long shadow in Huntsville, as well as evidence of our many law firms and construction businesses – after all, an astonishing 16 of the state’s largest 20 private companies are all headquartered in Birmingham.

I knew UAH was a major presence in Huntsville with its enrollment of 8,000 – but even I was surprised to see a major UAB building in the middle of downtown Huntsville. (If you’re keeping score, UAB’s enrollment is 22,000+.)

For any of you who may be somewhat dubious on Birmingham’s job creating economy, don’t be. Venture capital investment has more than doubled here recently and the Magic City is fast becoming a technology center in its own right.

What Bill Smith did with moving Landing’s headquarters from San Francisco to Birmingham is exciting and is not the last of such moves. And wasn’t it great to hear him say that Landing’s 816 new jobs have resulted in folks from the West Coast finding out what we have known all along: the quality of life in Birmingham is unsurpassed.

So let’s take this “news” with a big grain of salt about our Magic City suddenly losing its preeminent position as the dominant population center in our state.

Huntsville should indeed be commended on its transformation from a sleepy crossroads serving the local cotton industry to an attractive small metro due largely to the emergence of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. (Which is frankly nothing short of miraculous and something in which all Alabamians can take pride.)

But enough with the pearl clutching, my fellow Magic Citians. Make no mistake: Birmingham is #1 population-wise in Alabama — and that’s never going to change.

Tom Cosby worked for the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (now BBA) for 35 years. In addition to being their fundraiser, he played important roles saving Rickwood Field and Vulcan and was involved in numerous projects such as the funding of Corridor X/I-22, the recruitment of nonstop flights to BHM and Olympic soccer in 1996. Since retiring from the Chamber, he’s raised money for innumerable projects, including the Lyric Theatre, Birmingham Landmarks and Birmingham’s Veteran’s Day Parade. 

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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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41 thoughts on “Huntsville is never going to be Alabama’s largest city”

  1. Cosby–always the Birmingham Booster and never takes off his Chamber hat!
    Seriously, I love that he cites facts and figures to support the premise that Birmingham remains the leading metropolitan center in Alabama for so many reasons!

    1. failure to mention is the 42 or what 43 entities that make up the bummingham area,,, i lived there, i know…what a disaster. None of them get along, they fight over everything, the rich white hoods and the poor black hoods, bumhamm is a has been…. while the current facts n figures can be used to supplement a lost cause, the United States Space Command is about to be headquartered here. we have two major entities that work hand in hand Madison and Huntsville….no bickering, no back stabbing and lets not forget the Tennessee folks that commute in daily, the beauty of the North Alabama is just unmatched when it comes to the 1930’s iron and steel look the hammer has sporting….just a nasty town…lots of good things… they do have plenty but it was a nightmare living in Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Inverness, Calera, etc….areas.. the hammer is a very old town that is trying to keep its heartbeat….the city has dried up, the great white flight left bummingham proper high n dry so to speak….the crime,,, well the facts speak for themselves,, the racial tension…oh my….we moved to Huntsville from bummingham and have not regreted it.. .my 1`st experience was getting my car tag…all of 30 minutes here…..compared to having to take a day off work in the hammer….and that is just the tip….so much harmony and diversity here….. maybe our counts are not as high as bumming ham…but our quality of life is significantly better,,,,this is why you see Huntsville in so many TOP 10 list and well even Mobile and Auburn / Opelika rank higher than the hammingham…..so… yea, be the big Ham…its cool…..just we dont want nothing to do with the firehose/dog attack home town of Bummingham

      1. In Pelham for the last 22 years, old but doing well. We had some great times at the CofC back in the ’80s. I run into Kirk Mancer from time to time. We all learned our marketing craft from Cosby. He was, and is, a master of organization and fund-raising. Best!

          1. Thanks, but no, my name does not deserve to be in the same sentence with Cosby. I was just a Chamber drone.

  2. What a great boost for Birmingham! Keep the encouraging points coming, Tom Cosby. You add to the much needed aid to resolve Birminighams too noticeable inferiority complex. Proper understanding of facts is necessary for real understanding.

    I think it should be said that Huntsville is a great little sister, available to help Birmingham continue becoming a better city sharing useful lessons.

  3. I remember once reading that there are federal dollars that will not come Birmingham’s way if it ceases to be Alabama’s largest city. Is this correct? If so, the City of Birmingham needs to convince some of it’s neighbors such as Fairfield (which is struggling to keep the lights on) to merge with it.

    1. Wow is all I can say. As someone who grew up in Atlanta and now resides in the wonderful city of Huntsville and considers it and Alabama my home, can I Just remind you David that in 1960 Atlanta and Birmingham had almost the same population. When both cities had the opportunity to grow their airports we all know what happened when one did and one didn’t. Any intelligent person knows that Huntsville will never surpass BHM in over all population. to use it as a metric by which to put down the most the powerful engine in manufacturing and economic growth in the state, just sounds to me as jealous. Why the hate towards HSV? Up here we love our Birmingham and what’s good for HSV and the State of Alabma. And to the comment about Breweries and German scientists, Well. Do you remember Bull Connor and BHM in the 60’s.? Just curious. I will leave it at this, you can stay away from HSV and we will love visiting and enjoying BHM along with the economic growth of the Huntsville area and our great city. Can’t compare them both on population. Both are different and unique. Both Offer great things and qualities to the state of Alabama.

  4. Birmingham has everything Birmingham is going to have.

    Huntsville is the only city in Alabama more concerned about the future than the past.

  5. Yes, Birmingham’s Metro count is NOW the biggest. But, that complacent attitude is NOT going to enable us to reach loftier goals or feed us or provide our children and grandchildren higher paying job opportunities or increase our tax base for better schools and transportation. BUT, those things CAN happen when OUR REGION decides to UNIFY its efforts and doggedly pursue important new BUSINESS and INDUSTRY! I guess you know a lot of that is happening North and South of us. So, when OUR METRO can boast about landing thousands of high paying jobs and investments , our Metro count will surely continue to lead Alabama….otherwise, maybe not?

  6. Don’t expect too much either for Huntsville or Birmingham, Mongtomery, Mobile or any other town of city in Alabama until the State of Alabama fixes itself. That horrible constitution needs no more ‘fixing’ or ‘repair work.’ It needs a new one, starting from scratch. Include relevant taxation that invites business and people in, rather than discouraging them. Also look north to Tennessee, and south to Florida. NO state income tax in either one. Also I have also thought the City of Birmingham’s ridiculous occupational tax did damage it. Start thinking properly NOW Alabama! You are hurting yourself

    1. Tru’ dat! Cannot be better said, Roy. We’re a broken state in the cross-hair of industries who only want cheap labor, no unions, and cheap land and taxes. At least Huntsville is looking mostly at engineering, aerospace, military, and high education and high income employees. Who said red-clay cotton fields? Really? Gimme a break.

    2. Lived in Alabama most of my first 40 years, and have lived in Georgia for the last almost 31 years. But will always be a native of Alabama, and I try to keep up with what is happening in the state. Your comments are truly accurate, and until the majority of the citizens of Alabama wake up and realize being last in way too many areas is not something to boast about, it will not matter which city / metro area is more populous. There is so much unrealized potential in Alabama, but it will remain so until the leadership changes.

  7. I’m from neither city but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the penis envy that was dripping from this opinion article. Like an older brother that’s always had the spotlight, now just past his twilight years screaming, “look at me! I’m still here! I’m still relevant!” while the younger brother begins his ascent into the spotlight.
    This from an outsider.

  8. Never have I seen such envy pouring from a thinly vailed hit piece. Birmingham is such a laughable place now its not even funny. Who wants to come to the city that is rundown that it feels like everywhere you go are in the middle of the worst neighborhood of the city. Maybe learn to fix your city before attempting to punch up.

  9. Who cares about the population numbers? I don’t know a single person from Hsv who’d be willing to move to Birmingham! Myself included. It’s an awful place to visit and I can’t imagine having to live there.

    1. I find this article interesting…the condescension was dripping from the insults thinly veiled as compliments. Such as…the largest concentration of microbreweries in the state, which might seem a trivial fact. Had one ventured beyond the 100 miles up the road from their hometown, they might realize that craft beer is actually a “thing” in the rest of the country. Which would then lead you to another conclusion, that maybe the reason the microbreweries are thriving is due to the population makeup of Huntsville, those who embrace the future, and growth, and change. Apparently companies like Google, Toyota, Facebook and Amazon without the name recognition of “The Landing” (which I had to google to find out it’s part of Shipt which is already Birmingham) overlooked Birmingham and chose the sleepy little town up the road. Alas, Huntsville will never outgrow Birmingham, anybody remember Detroit? You will always have us beat Birmingham, in crime, poverty, unemployment, the under/uneducated. I’ll keep those other less important facts, such as largest concentration of engineers, PHDs in the country, Largest Research Park, highest income etc. It’ll be ok Birmingham, we got you covered, you can be the biggest metro area, we’ll be the biggest everything else.

  10. It looks like me might want to count who is here to hurt vs. help!

    I would like to see both thrive and all of Alabama. Cooperation for cities is so much better than competition. Each can get better.

    Home rule could help, also full metro cooperation and coordination, good tax system, a fresh state constitution, citizen safety. I also think cooperation between the agricultural rural population and urban population could be made better. There are more

    To summarize I repeat myself, and others: ‘Bigger is not better, better is better.’ Add ‘aim for the best, together!’
    Please, cooperate and help.

  11. OK…now that everyone has had a proper dump of their opinions and relieved their mental constipation, can ComebackTown “move ” onto other topics?

      1. That’s up to David Sher. This is his blog. My point is having citizens throw insults at each other’s city is not moving anyone forward.

    1. Karl, you are right. It is way below being helpful to either city, all these negative statements. It is time for more ‘Comeback.’

    2. I’m still stunned by this opinion piece…I mean really, 816 new jobs in a city of Birmingham’s stature????? A city of 1.1 mil???? Surely there is a better example of economic growth and recovery than that!!!!

    1. Very nice! I didn’t notice any street gang shoot-outs or drive-bys on Huntsville’s town park and trails…nor have I read of any on the news. Look up the respective crime rates.

      Street shootings have ruined Birmingham’s struggles since the murder on Morris Avenue killed the scene in the early ’70s. Every time the city struggles ahead, shootings and murders and homeless drive it back down again. Remember the old Five-Points when it was hot?

  12. Cosby, I don’t really believe that you have ever been to Huntsville. You realize that this is just plain jealousy.

  13. You know what you cannot do in downtown Birmingham at 2 pm? Get something to eat. I refuse to attend business meetings downtown anymore. Run long and need to get a late lunch? Impossible. You have to get out of town to do it.

  14. This whole competition thing is stupid. Birmingham is and always be bigger, period. I live in Huntsville and love Huntsville. If you ask the people hear what they think about this whole media driven ridiculous story, they would say it is just that, a media driven ridiculous story. There is no competition going on here. Who cares who is the largest? We just want to be the best we can be. We have a great mayor and he is doing a fabulous job directing the smart growth here. Birmingham, you are great. We are two different munis and always will be. I just know that I am very impressed with the changes taking place in our city. Remember this, media is all about readership/viewership and it matters not to them if their “news” is positive or bad.

    1. Butch Patrick

      I absolutely agree with you.

      Both Huntsville and Birmingham are advancing and doing so in quite different ways. People should simply keep thinking of ways to be helpful, encouraging both. That would count in the improvement of both.

      The back and forth about which one is better looks like toddlers throwing sand at each other in a sandbox!

      Support both and together they will rise.

    2. This is nicely put. I guess that you are right. It does not matter which city is bigger. Huntsville has and is continuing to make incredible strides in technology, biomedical reseearch, new industry in the area bringing in the FBI, Facebook, Google, Toyota, Polaris, to mention a few amazing things that have gone on in this town. We have every right to be proud of our city, large or small. Huntsville has and continues to move in an amazing direction due to the incredibly educated and intelligent people who make up this community. I so appreciate being a part of this area and size does not matter.

  15. This 1990’s mentality of Birmingham by the Chamber and the city is what has held Birmingham back for YEARS. This ‘chip on the shoulder’ mentality that whines about how we didn’t get the airport or some other city got something better than we did. Thank God the new leadership in this city isn’t comparing ourselves to anyone, but focused on how to make Birmingham the world class city we know it has the potential to be as soon as the folks so worried about how we compare to other cities and what we lost out on that stopped us from being great are gone. Birmingham has to stop apologizing for itself and wringing its hands. Cities with confidence that are growing aren’t looking at or worried about comparing themselves to anyone else. We are our own measure of success. The industry, the white collar good paying jobs, the real estate investments, the technology, the quality of life, the culture and arts, the food…the growing tax base…this is what we that are actively making this city grow and shine like a diamond are thinking about. I appreciate the hard work people do, but change your thinking and drop this tired ol’ cliche about “oh, we coulda been great if just…” It’s tiresome. So what if HSV becomes the biggest city, Birmingham is always gonna be a beautiful city of the New South…if we get out of its way.

  16. Not sure where Tom’s comments are coming from…insecurity, arrogance, fear or raw immaturity. I’ve lived in both Birmingham and Huntsville. Yes, they are extremely different cities. I’m glad Birmingham has a bigger population. High crime, divisive leadership, homelessness, poverty, etc., etc., etc. How incredibly childish for you to even attempt to compare with Huntsville that has a thriving economy, strong leadership, massive new investment and one of the most desirable cities in America.

  17. I like what you said Charlie Ray. I agree that each city is what it’s citizens make it, in their own way. The city in which one lives i believe is a fundamental part of one’s own person identity. What you contribute to its being makes it yours even more so. I do not like whining nor do I like the whining others do. And i also believe you should not criticize without first having said at least three positive things first, AND prepare to offer a solution. My grandmother said: ‘If you have nothing doo to say, then say nothing at all, She lived in south Alabama, having been a teacher at Judson College before she way married to my grandfather. So I believe she was well qualified to say that!

    1. Well a few ‘typos’, Not the least of which was the quate from my grandmother, so once again! “If you have nothing good to say ., then say nothing at all!’.
      There were a couple more typos, less worry about them. eg. personal identity.

      Let us keep helping all of our favorite cities thrive and improve.

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