Today’s guest columnist is Daniel Coleman.
On our first date – January 1995 in Chicago – Brooke and I talked about Birmingham.
Although we had both believed we had to leave our shared hometown to start our lives – Smith and graduate school at the University of Chicago for her, Yale and the MBA program at the University of Chicago for me – we also both knew we would move home someday.
We married two years later and moved to Connecticut, where our three children were born.
Thirteen years after our first date, we finally moved home. Shortly after settling in, I took a job that required me to commute to Chicago and New York for more than seven years. Although I officially lived in Birmingham from 2009 to 2017, I didn’t feel like I had moved home. When I stopped commuting in August 2017, I reintegrated into day-to-day life in Birmingham for the first time since leaving for college in 1982.
As I re-acclimated, memories fresh from the early 1980s came back to me. I brought up events to my friends from high school as if they had happened yesterday. They were shocked at my memory; I couldn’t believe they had forgotten. I felt like I had just been thawed from 35 years of cryogenic storage.
Where did our Birmingham companies go?
I noticed how Birmingham had changed over time. While everyone told me that downtown Birmingham was “coming back,” it felt eerily empty to me. Where were all the companies?
AmSouth, SouthTrust, Compass were all gone. There was no Torchmark, no SONAT, no Sterne Agee. Away from downtown, we had lost Pizitz, Parisian, Southern Progress, Bruno’s, and Big B Drugs. Where were the new companies to replace them?
Why were the empty buildings still empty? With the loss of these companies, Birmingham had lost part of its history; it had also lost philanthropic partners and training grounds for future entrepreneurs.
Young entrepreneurs find Birmingham a cool city
And then I met a lot of young entrepreneurs working at Innovation Depot. Most of them were from other places. They were not as interested in Birmingham’s past. Birmingham was a cool city, with cool buildings and great food. These people hung out in Railroad Park. They had drinks at The Atomic (May it rest in peace).
They talked about angel investors, incubators, and liquidity events. While their impact was just beginning to be felt, they gave me hope for Birmingham’s economic future.
A good guy mayor
In 2017, Brooke introduced me to a young man who told me that he wanted to be mayor of Birmingham. I was impressed by his attention to detail with respect to the city’s finances. People told me that he was a good guy, but it wasn’t his time. I disagreed: There was no time like the present for a good guy. I went “all in” for Randall Woodfin, and after his victory he asked me to join his transition team.
For two years, a group of us from this team went to City Hall weekly to work with Finance Director Lester Smith on how best to stabilize the city’s finances. With Lester’s leadership, the city shored up its pension and refinanced its debt at historically low interest rates. From a financial perspective, the city managed the pandemic as well as any city in the country. What other city has been upgraded by the rating agencies in the past year?
No one wanted to talk about Birmingham’s Civil Rights past
I was born 11 months after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. By the time I went to college in 1982, I knew very little about the Civil Rights protests in my hometown. Growing up over the mountain, no one talked about the protests or the bombs. There was a sense by some people who knew more than I did that it was time to move on.
It took moving away to learn about the events of the early 1960s. As time went on, for many people who grew up like me, there was a growing sense of shame. And no one wanted to talk about that.
When I moved back, my day-to-day life was a lot more integrated than it had been in the 1970s and early 1980s. I found that a lot of people not only talked about the 1960s, but that the city shared a sense of pride in the heroism that took place on our streets at a critical moment in this country’s history.
More importantly to our future, I have noticed the conversation shifting to what is going on today and what we can do to address issues such as poverty that are rooted in our segregated history. The Birmingham I grew up in was not able to have this conversation. The Birmingham in which I live today – and in which we are raising our Connecticut-born children – seems able and more willing.
Waking from a 35-year cryogenic freeze
With the perspective of waking from that 35-year cryogenic freeze, I see that Birmingham has taken important steps forward as a community – even if in some ways we have taken a few steps back.
My wife and I are still passionate about our hometown. We want it to be a place our children will come back to raise their families. For that to happen, I firmly believe that we must address the economic stagnation that Birmingham has endured relative to cities like Nashville and Charlotte.
We must ask ourselves why we have not grown. What makes us less fertile than other Southern cities? How can we help the idealistic entrepreneurs who have decided to settle here? How can they help us create economic growth?
We might complain about the traffic in Atlanta or Nashville, but without comparable economic growth, we will not have the resources to tackle the entrenched problems that we continue to face.
Without economic growth, our trip to see our grandchildren may be on a plane.
Daniel Coleman, a Birmingham native with more than three decades of experience in finance, is Birmingham-Southern’s16th president. Coleman, who was CEO of the global financial services firm KCG Holdings until its 2017 sale, earned his B.A. in English at Yale University and his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.
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).
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