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.
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. email@example.com.