Man wakes from 35-year cryogenic freeze to find a new Birmingham

Daniel Coleman
Daniel Coleman

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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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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11 thoughts on “Man wakes from 35-year cryogenic freeze to find a new Birmingham”

  1. Daniel, it’s so good to read your inspiring column this morning. It was Birmingham’s good fortune that you and Brooke decided to return to your home city in the prime of your lives. What you’ve done to help stabilize the finances of the city, and now to lead BSC, my alma mater, to greater success, is truly a blessing. May your children, like you and Brooke, and my grandchildren, all find their futures in our city.

  2. Can we have economic growth without population growth? I’m genuinely interested in whether there are economic models in which a city and region prosper without endless spread, destruction of neighborhoods by freeways, etc.

  3. I graduated from B-SC in ‘73. And besides two stints of living elsewhere in the state, I’ve been a diehard Southsider. In my opinion the reason Birmingham has lost it’s “magic” is that it’s surrounded by all these small municipalities who won’t give up their autonomy for the good of the whole. I was told there are 27! different governments and and Heaven forbid that they should ever give up their power. But look at what’s going on in Bessemer right now. Fairfield has had its share of struggles. Think of all the duplication of resources in the school systems! I won’t even go into the elite attitudes of Homewood, Mountain Brook and Hoover and others.

    Nashville is one large metropolitan area with one government. I wish all the towns in Birmingham’s SMA would do consolidate . Dream on.

    Nevertheless, I’m proud of what Birmingham proper has done in the meantime, in spite of being hemmed in. And I’m glad to be a resident of Glen Iris. It’s a great time to be living in Birmingham!

    Great and insightful article! Glad to have someone like you at ‘Southern. (My daughter graduated in 2019!).

  4. Interesting read, Daniel, and great to hear of the great progress Birmingham continues to make. We enjoyed our eight years living in downtown Birmingham, and had the pleasure of meeting you through some distant relatives and touring your beautiful home.

  5. Daniel, your arrival back home in Birmingham will indeed be a big benefit to our Home Town. Birmingham Southern, Samford and UAB are such valuable assets. With education, scholarship and research operating at a high level, the city will be a better city. When I read what you have written it appears that helping Birmingham advance is a priority in your thinking, Hardly anything could be better for the city. Birmingham now has two business focused University Presidents. Outstanding!

  6. Daniel Coleman you are probably factually correct on your comparisons of Birmingham to the cities you mentioned. It is actually a lot different! I am fortunate enough to own businesses in almost every city you name. Birmingham has several advantages over each of these cities! It would take too long to put down each advantage but we have many. Actually the problem is there is not enough time to take advantage of the opportunities that present them selves! We need to coach positive advantages, anyone can succeed in any of these cities and many do! I believe Birmingham exceeds each city you discuss. Your article leads others to think Birmingham is behind or not as good as Greenville or Nashville? I believe Birmingham is positioned to out preform most other cities over the next 25 years! I will be glad to buy your lunch and explain in more detail!

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