By David Sher
To grow or not to grow–that is the question.
A couple of years ago I sat down with the CEO of a successful Birmingham family owned business.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how we might grow our Birmingham region.
He took copious notes and asked a lot of questions.
I thought things were going great.
But at the end of my presentation, he looked up and said, “I don’t see the problem. I like things just like they are.”
Oops! I wasn’t expecting that.
But I get it.
Why would he want a different Birmingham?
He likely lives in a beautiful home in Mountain Brook, plays golf at a prestigious country club, and he and his family enjoy a 2nd home at the beach or in the mountains.
This column could have been written for Vestavia Hills, where I live now, Homewood, or for Birmingham or one of its many suburbs, but since I went to Mountain Brook Schools, as did my children, I’m writing it through the lens of a Mountain Brook parent.
I was probably naïve, but when I began publishing ComebackTown ten years ago, I assumed most people wanted to see our Birmingham region be competitive and grow.
I’ve found that’s not necessarily true.
ComebackTown has published numerous columns from people who have creative ideas on how to give Birmingham a boost.
Most are met with this dire warning, “We don’t want to be like Atlanta.” We don’t want to be like Nashville, Austin, or Charlotte with big city problems.”
Don’t worry, we are a long way from being like Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, or Charlotte.
Greenville, Chattanooga, and Huntsville will pass Birmingham
Daniel Coleman, the President of Birmingham Southern College, in a plea for reasonable growth, recently wrote, “If we look at the growth rates of the economies of Greenville, Chattanooga, and Huntsville, it is a matter of time before these metro areas have larger economies than Birmingham.”
Birmingham’s lack of progress may be okay with our older and more affluent citizens, but not so much with our youth.
Here are comments from a young professional who left Birmingham that sum up the responses I’ve received from others…
“I started my career at a Birmingham big 4 accounting firm. They only offered two paths, tax or audit. Atlanta’s office was about 10x’s larger and offered much more opportunities to do something interesting like Investment Banking, Valuation, etc.
“Then I started working for private companies in Birmingham and they all got bought and moved the Corporate HQ’s to larger cities. That messed my resume up pretty badly and I had no choice but to move. I wasn’t going to take a chance on another small Birmingham company where you BETTER love it because there aren’t a lot of other options.
“Eventually, I found myself in Dallas (because my Birmingham company moved here) and I realized that here, you have choices – lots of them – making it harder for the employer to screw you because good employees go somewhere else fast. Whereas in Birmingham, I had to take the abuse from the company/boss because I didn’t have other good options.
“My parents are begging me to move back to which I respond with the lack of opportunities. I tell them, ‘If you want your kids/grandkids to stay near you, put yourself somewhere they want to be and can flourish.’ They hate when I say that. I was educated at a prestigious Birmingham university and most people in my class moved away for a reason and have found no reason to move back.
“Birmingham used to have 9 Fortune 500 companies. Today it has one and it could up and leave at any time. That’s very little motivation for someone looking for future career options.
“Does Birmingham have jobs? Yes. Could I do ok there? Probably. Could I do better elsewhere with many more options? Yes!
“Also, if I were to move back to Birmingham, I have little confidence that my children will not move away; leaving me in the same ‘what happened’ situation that my parents are facing now.”
“My daughter left Birmingham for the Research Triangle 15 years ago for work in the video games animation industry. My son-in-law followed her and they moved to Durham for his software engineering job. Bear with me…They then moved outside Greensboro, NC for his job, my daughter quit her career and blessed me with three grandchildren.
“Now they desperately want to move back to grandparents in the Birmingham metro, but he cannot find work that touches what he makes in Greensboro in either income or benefits.
“That, for me, tells the story of what’s missing in Birmingham.”
As Birmingham Southern College President Daniel Coleman warns “I want my children to want to move home after college without sacrificing their ambitions. I want them to be able to pursue opportunities that are as exciting and competitive as opportunities around the country.”
“Without economic growth, our trip to see our grandchildren may be on a plane.”
To grow or not to grow, that is the question.
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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