Today’s guest columnist is Hunter Williams.
Regional cooperation is the rising tide that will lift all ships in the Birmingham Metro area.
Unfortunately, our ships seem to have been stuck in the mud and the mire for quite some time.
That’s not to say that Birmingham hasn’t seen a period of tremendous growth, revitalization and a renaissance that has brought national attention to our door. Rather, this success and recognition has happened as governmental leadership has come together to fight for common goals.
It’s been said Birmingham can’t get out of its own way, but I’d argue that adage is more accurately applied to the entire region and the patchwork of municipalities therein.
Mistrust and inequity
The problems we face are complex. They stem from generations of mistrust and inequity that are certainly not isolated to just our Southern city – although the well-documented “white flight” and suburbanization brought on by racial animus and the new interstate system in the 1970s only served to exacerbate these issues of inequity and division we are still dealing with today.
The lack of regional cooperation is not just a government issue, nor can these socioeconomic issues be fixed by throwing money at them or by centralizing government. We have to be honest about what our problems are and then we must work to identify realistic solutions.
That said, here are some areas we would all benefit if we were all on the same page: shared economic interests, leadership initiatives, youth sports and public safety.
Shared economic interests
A major part of addressing these shortcomings is realizing our collective strengths and leaning into those. One of our largest exports is construction, which is a good thing. There are no shortages of construction cranes looming over the city skyline in recent years, despite the challenges we’ve faced during this public health crisis.
However, as we’ve seen far too often, local firms are not always retained by businesses looking to expand their footprint. That is regional money that we’re leaving on the table for the sake of saving a quick buck. It’s shortsighted and misguided.
On the flipside of that coin, our local firms must support and hire local workers. One thing that has been troubling is seeing so many projects with Birmingham-based firms and driving by and seeing all of the tags of the workers — none of which were Jefferson County tags.
We have local labor unions and labor halls that could perhaps have rates that are marginally higher, however, these dollars go directly back into the pockets of those who call Birmingham home instead of going up to Tennessee or a rural county in Alabama.
Currently, the City of Birmingham is looking into providing legislation to make sure we do this on all of our city-funded construction projects.
In addition, Leadership Birmingham is an organization of local leaders that is focused on moving the entire metro area forward – it’s composed of the best and brightest people from the entire region. Unfortunately, there has been a trend of us digressing into smaller leadership initiatives from neighboring municipalities that are centric to specific interests within their jurisdictions. This does not move the regional needle at all and I would love to see these groups consolidated into one that is focused on regional cooperation, not just the interests of a singular municipality.
Beyond the issues of economic cooperation, the delta between the opportunities our children in the Birmingham City School system are exposed to, versus over-the-mountain schools is staggering. It’s no secret that the wealth gap which exists between our school system and that of neighboring districts is one of the largest in the country.
What brings us together time and again is athletics – whether that be the Olympics or something as small as youth sports where kids can interact and compete with kids they otherwise would not have the opportunity to ever meet or spend time with. We need to better utilize athletics as a way to bring together a very fragmented educational system that is separated based on families’ net worth. Youth sports leagues can be a way to bring kids from all different backgrounds together and let them spend time and learn from each other.
We see over-the-mountain leagues that aren’t specific to these communities in their bylaws, however, in all reality it’s almost exclusively made up of kids from those communities. These types of leagues are not available to Birmingham City School students. Presenting our Birmingham children with more opportunities, through youth sports, to interact with kids in over-the-mountain communities is one of the ways we can start to bring our region together and collectively build a better future for the entire metro area.
Public safety collaboration
Finally, I’d like to briefly touch on the issue of public safety. Simply put, we need every single one of our police chiefs and fire chiefs to join the leadership of the Jefferson County Mayors Association & Jefferson County Councilor Roundtable. Our leadership has been clear. We will never reach our full potential if we are not moving forward as a region.
If we are stealing from one another’s workforce, we are not moving forward but just trading assets and treading water. The Mayors Association’s “no poaching” agreement must be replicated by police and fire chiefs across the entire metro area. This will greatly reduce the staffing issues we’ve seen in recent months and help us make headway in the war of attrition faced by many of our emergency departments throughout the region.
Together, we’ve faced many uncommon challenges in recent years but I firmly believe that has helped us realize our collective strength because the Birmingham Metro Area has been and will remain the heartbeat of Alabama – economically, culturally and geographically. Just imagine what we could do if we all marched to one beat instead of tripping over each other’s feet.
Birmingham City Councilor, Hunter Williams, was first elected in 2017 and was re-elected in 2021. During his first term he served as Public Safety Chair and is currently Chair of the Economic Development and Tourism Committee.
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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