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.
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.