Census numbers kick Birmingham in the gut–but…

Don Erwin

Today’s guest columnist is Don Erwin.

To those of us optimistic about Birmingham (city and metro), the 2020 census numbers were like a bucket of cold water thrown in our faces.

Why weren’t the numbers better?

From 2010 to 2020, of the thirty-three metros in the Southeast US with at least 500,000 people, the Birmingham-Hoover Metro grew slower than all but three—Memphis, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; and Virginia Beach, Virginia. The City of Birmingham lost 11,500 people between 2010 and 2020.

So what happened? Why aren’t we growing more?

We see the new construction in downtown Birmingham, all the people moving there, and the renewed vitality of the city, and we are tempted to believe the numbers are wrong. They probably aren’t.

First, population growth is slowing almost everywhere. More than half of US counties lost population from 2010 to 2020. Even China has abandoned its one-child policy and is encouraging families to have two or three children.

Second, Birmingham has an older population, which means there’s a greater number of deaths versus births.

Third, we tend to overestimate the population effect of people moving to downtown Birmingham. They are largely empty-nesters and young college grads. The empty-nesters have a higher mortality rate and are not likely to have children. The college grads and young marrieds—a friend jokes—have dogs not children these days. And people moving from the suburbs to downtown don’t increase the metro population.

Fourth, US cities and metros with higher growth rates tend to have more immigrants moving in. During 2010-2018, Nashville had a net growth of 36,000 immigrants, while the Birmingham metro had only 8,000. Look at our own history: During Birmingham’s high-growth era, it had large numbers of immigrants moving in and working here. In 1920, Birmingham was described as the most ethnically diverse city in the South.

Fifth, Alabama’s poor reputation depresses the entire state’s growth. In 2010, Alabama had 157,000 more people than South Carolina. In 2020, Alabama had 95,000 less people. South Carolina outgrew Alabama by a quarter-million people in ten years. Economic developers are fond of saying that site selection is a process of elimination. Alabama’s reputation is often reason enough to eliminate it from consideration by some companies.

Only a few cities within Alabama—Huntsville, Auburn, the coastal towns—have been able to escape Alabama’s slow growth.

Sixth, Birmingham has its own burden of history which acts to depress growth.

In spite of these challenges, I am optimistic about Birmingham. I’ve lived in the city or metro since 1977 and been involved with economic development since 1990. In my opinion, Birmingham (city and metro) are poised to grow and prosper in coming years, for the following reasons:

First, Birmingham has positive momentum. The 2010-2020 Birmingham was better in almost every way than the 2000-2010 Birmingham.

During the 2000-2010 period, we went from having six Fortune 500 headquarters to only one. Many companies concluded that Birmingham had no future and left. We often had poor and/or corrupt political leadership at the city and county levels. It was a time of scandals. The only good things I can remember happening were the opening of the Barber Motorsports Park in 2003 and the deal to create the Innovation Depot in 2007.

In contrast, during 2010-2020, amazing things happened in Birmingham.

Business and government made a massive investment in the renovation of downtown Birmingham, resulting in beautiful parks, stadiums, historic buildings, hotels, and restaurants and breweries. State leaders helped by passing the state historic tax credit.

My daughter got married in downtown Birmingham in 2019. Five years previously, all three of the venues she used were vacant or unrestored (the Elyton Hotel, the Florentine Building, and the Thomas Jefferson ballroom and restaurant).

Second, thousands of people have moved downtown to live, giving the city a 24/7 sense of energy. This is essential to attract new companies and to retain existing companies.

Third, we have much better political leadership. Our current city and county public officials are the best we’ve had in many decades. Mayor Woodfin sets a high standard by being a unifier.

Fourth, we have a vibrant startup culture which has produced rock star companies like Shipt, Therapy Brands, and Landing.

Fifth, Birmingham’s immigrant population is not large, but it is highly effective at starting companies and generating good jobs. For example, Shegun Otulana, a Nigerian immigrant, started Therapy Brands in Birmingham and recently sold it to KKR, a leading global investment firm, reportedly for about $1.2 billion, including debt.

Sixth, reputations take time to change, but they can change. I remember when North Carolina was known as “the tobacco state.” Now, its predominant image is Research Triangle Park. Ten years ago, most people in Birmingham had a negative image of the city. Now, that image is overwhelmingly positive. Next year, with the World Games, we have an opportunity to show the world how cool a place Birmingham really is.

Finally, we have seasoned and competent economic development professionals in place at key positions to help attract, grow, and expand companies, producing more and better jobs.

We don’t want wild, uncontrolled growth like Atlanta or Austin, because that inflates housing prices, strains infrastructure, and lowers disposable income, but we need reasonable, sustained growth that brings good jobs and increasing prosperity to Birmingham citizens.

Birmingham still has challenges, but it believes in itself and is moving upward. It will take a while for the rest of the country to realize that, but they will, and Birmingham will grow and prosper.

Don Erwin lives in the Birmingham metro. He is the author of Buffalo Hunting in Alabama, a novel about the fierce competition among cities and states to attract big mega projects. Buffalo Hunting is available from Amazon in paper, Kindle, or Audible.

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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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18 thoughts on “Census numbers kick Birmingham in the gut–but…”

  1. David’s Comeback Town has (appropriately) beaten this dead horse of why Birmingham isn’t growing for a number of years now. I will not try to enumerate the reasons expressed by many people far smarter than I.

    But I will list 1: The fact, and the perception, of run-away street crime…whether it be murders, shootings, etc., etc. A city cannot survive on a public space, a few down-town breweries, and several restaurants (or food court)…or a baseball park when many folks are afraid of parking anywhere around Railroad Park. I had retired friends who moved into condos near the park but moved back south-of-town after one notable street riot, resulting in property value.

    1. No matter how much. Crime in Bham people all over America experience crime but what they don’t do is Run racist people for office guy get kicked off Supreme Court of Alabama twice its hard as hell to remove a Judge let alone twice,,When you leave Alabama an talk to others Crime isn’t the issue it’s Back ward ass thinking that has keep Alabama last in every metric of living an wear it as something good brag about how stupid you are people don’t want to live with you backward ass thinking!!

      1. Just as messy a message as many of mine! Yet I do understand the main point and completely agree. Too many Alabama People need to turn their Brains around and look forward to make the future better. Get out of that old mud. Who wants to live with stupid people?! Get those old boots out of that mud before it turns into concrete!

  2. Karl, the things you mention are very serious. Like the Miami Beach Condo collapse, paying no attention to these and procrastination can bring on a crash. If it is dealt with strongly and quickly so that important sense of safety returns, the opportunities for the city to become a greater place to live are limitless. No city can stand on a broken foundation!

  3. As noted, Karl and I agree that the removing of some of the simmering problems will be needed to truly open the city for its bestter opportuinities. What I read here is valid for supporting apositive view, giving a strong indication that opportunity is here for the taking. Get rid of the of the dangers!

  4. Prepare to make the most out of World Games, Be ready to show, and report crime reduction at least, with police on their feet, on horses, and bicycles, eyes on the street with back- up immediately available. That is not too hard to do or even think about. Dress the ones on horses, to put on a show. Everyone knows what the Royal Canadian Mounted Police look like. Pleasantly impressive and serious. And somewhat like good sports too! Attendees and viewers will notice. Birmingham is then seen as a place to be and be comfortable and happy, unlike what they might have expected from its old reputation.
    How could you not love that?

    1. I am looking forward to the World Games also. Keep in mind that they were scheduled for 2020 and Birmingham would not have been ready for the games—still building things in late 2021—had the pandemic not postponed them.

      Great idea about the horses. We have an opportunity to put our best foot forward with the games next summer.

      1. Yes, and thank you for your response. Not forgetting the past, we need to take more thoughtful time to plan for a better future!

        You are right about one of the few opportunities coming from COVID-19. More time for Birmingham to prepare for the World Games. A better way to show or favorite city. That’s good luck!

  5. Great article, David. It will ALWAYS be home to me, as will the childhood memories of going “to town” at Christmas to see the Pizitz windows, and eventually becoming the Assistant to the Advertising Director there and ultimately to Mr. King, a credit concept company that afforded thousands of people the ability to have home furnishings AND, if they chose, to built their credit. It was pure pleasure working with you….

  6. It is time to look forward toward building a better city. giving it citizens the best quality of like.

  7. You say Birmingham is “moving upward”, but it’s actually moving backwards in comparison to peers. The metro grew at like 5.5% but the whole country grew at around 7.5%. So Birmingham slid down the list of largest cities/metros last decade.

    Also, Birmingham cheerleaders have been saying this all last decade too. “Just wait for the 2020 census, that’ll show everyone how much we’ve grown”.

    You say you don’t want to become Atlanta or Austin, that’s not true. That’s just what you say to justify your feelings. Most people are obsessed with trying to justify why Nashville, Austin, or Atlanta really aren’t any better. It’s talked about ALL the time so yes people in Bham DO want to become those cities..

    Also, young professionals want Austin, Atlanta, or Nashville so as long as you sit back and say “ohh we don’t want to be like them” (which is a lie we know) you’re taking a backseat again while other cities are moving forward and actually attracting large companies, not losing their biggest most notable companies.

  8. Clarification… Older people don’t want to become Atlanta, Nashville, Austin etc…. But younger folks do. Young people assume they’ll be able to live close to their work and traffic won’t bother them. They realize that where there’s traffic, something good is happening.

    They’re seeing their friends have more job opportunities which translates into more money and options to move jobs to something they like more. Say you’re an Accountant or Finance guy, Birmingham might have 3 jobs available for you to move up, those cities have 20+. Obviously this is a generalization but it’s overall true (not always I know).

    But young folks see the national attention, vibe, and upward trajectory of these places. They have the latest coolest restaurants, clubs, kids play places (does bham even have putt putt anymore?), churches, other young singles/families.

    Birmingham is kinda known as a wannabe city to these young professionals. Sure there are nice things but it’s best for 50+ people who don’t care to and dont want to move.

    1. Hmmm…what can I say? In spite of my earlier comments on Bham’s crime issue, your comments are so naïve they are hard to respond to. How old are you? 30? Birmingham (and area cities) have many entertainments, cool restaurants, slick new churches, etc. Dang, boy, what do you want?

      If you want to bang your head against the wall while you and your wife try to buy a $750,000 house in a gated community and get your kids in private schools then go knock yourself out.

      We 50+ year olds have been there and done that. And true, we have learned in our “senility” that a lot of it wasn’t worth it for what it cost us, mentally and physically.

      Move to Austin, Charlotte, Nashville, or Asheville…please.

      1. Like I said, older folks want Bham to stay the same because it’s comfortable, but that hits home when your kids move off and don’t care to come back. Our slick new restaurants and entertainments are nice but they’re commonplace in those cities and perhaps even a bit behind still. They’re slick and new to you, but not to them.

        Also, you think Bham is that much cheaper Cost of Living wise? Been to Homewood lately? Birmingham, IMO, is actually priced high for what you get. I could spend about the same or just a little more in any of those cities and live in a fine area. Downtown’s apt rental rates are darn near those other cities too when comparing apples to apples properties. Sure, you COULD spend a alot more in those cities because Bham doesn’t offer those same luxury condos, apts, or townhouses. But take most apts in downtown Bham and I could find something similar in any city for about the same price. Bham is overpriced for a city that’s not growing and not really moving forward.

        1. I am uncertain about opinion vs. information here. I do know that both very expensive and nicely located inexpensive houses are available now. And there are poorly designed examples of both, as well as beautiful ones of both. Let’s be careful about overgeneralizing! And overstating qualities in one place VS another. First hand experience is the best.

      2. Yes. You are right. So if anyone does not like it, does want to help keep getting better, then get out of our way! When you experience both the bad and good things in these other cities, do Not come back to Birmingham, unless you keep any promise you might make to make Birmingham better.

      3. Yes. You are right. So if anyone does not like it, does want to help keep getting better, then get out of our way! When you experience both the bad and good things in these other cities, do Not come back to Birmingham, unless you keep any promise you might make to make Birmingham better. Complaints without a solution to offer just waste time!

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