Birmingham suburbs, are you nervous yet?

More than 50,000 people attended concert by Garth Brooks on June 4, 2022, at Protective Stadium. (Mary Colurso | mcolurso@AL.com)

By David Sher

I never saw it coming.

According to recently released U.S. Bureau of Census population estimates the City of Birmingham is now the 3rd largest city in Alabama.

Until 2020 Birmingham was the largest city in the state.

In 2020 Huntsville passed us.

The drop from #1 to #2 may have been faster than expected, but it seemed inevitable.

But now we’re #3.

Even more distressing is that Montgomery passed Birmingham even though Montgomery lost population too. Yes, Birmingham lost its 2nd place ranking to an Alabama city that is also shrinking.

That is painful.

For the first time since the 1920 census (100 years ago), the City of Birmingham’s population dropped below 200,000.

In 2010, Birmingham’s population was 212,000. Now it’s 197,575–a loss of 15,000 people in 11 years.

Birmingham’s population has been on a downward spiral for decades.

Birmingham’s population fell…

  • 12% in the 60’s
  • 5% in the 70’s
  • 6% in the 80’s
  • 9% 90’s
  • 12% in the 00’s
  • 5% in the last decade

Now in one year we’ve lost one more percentage point.

Note that much of Birmingham’s population loss is ‘black flight.’ Birmingham’s Black population is now 68.3%. In 2010, it was 73.5%.

This column is not about Huntsville

In the past when we talked about Birmingham’s drop from #1 to #2, the discussion usually centered on Huntsville.

But this column is not about Birmingham and Huntsville.

Birmingham’s metropolitan population is over 1.1 million; Huntsville’s less than 500,000.

Huntsville metro may one day pass Birmingham, but it will be a long time coming.

And metropolitan Montgomery is less than 400,000 and is absolutely no threat.

With continued shrinking population, how will Birmingham be able to afford to continue to support regional amenities?

Folks in the suburbs–please answer the following questions:

Did you to attend the Garth Brooks Concert at Protective Stadium?

Have you attended a USFL or Birmingham Baron game?

Are you planning to attend the opening or closing ceremonies of the World Games or watch any of the competitions?

Have you taken your family to Red Mountain, Ruffner, or Railroad Park in the past year?

Have you visited the Birmingham Zoo, Museum of Art, McWane Science Center, Civil Rights Institute, or Botanical Gardens?  How about the Rotary Trail?

My guess is you or a family member have done at least one of the above.

The City of Birmingham pays millions of dollars every year to support these and other regional venues–not Mountain Brook, not Vestavia Hills, not Hoover.

Birmingham made a commitment of $90,000,000 to build and support Protective Stadium. ($3M a year for 30 years)

Birmingham funded $64 million to construct Regions Field.

Well, you get the idea.

The City of Birmingham is one of 35 municipalities in Jefferson County, but other cities contribute little or nothing for these amenities.

How much population does the City of Birmingham have to lose before it ceases to be able to support our region?

What can be done?

I recently participated in a brainstorming session by a civic organization to evaluate ideas to promote population growth in Birmingham.

They identified five issues that could make a difference.

  1. Birmingham City Schools must become more academically competitive with suburban schools. Many young folks start their careers in Birmingham and then when their children become school age they move to a municipality with a better school system.
  2. Significant reduction in crime and homicides.
  3. Birmingham has lost a lot of affordable housing that must be replaced.
  4. Continue to support the growth of downtown residential units. There are 10,000 people living downtown and the population is projected to double over the next 10 years.
  5. Continue to invest in Birmingham neighborhoods. Corporate Realty’s development in Norwood is a game changer.

I often hear from folks in the suburbs that the City of Birmingham is not relevant to their lives.

Birmingham needs its suburbs and our suburbs need Birmingham.

Our Birmingham region is on the verge of great things, but it will take all of us to get there.

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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23 thoughts on “Birmingham suburbs, are you nervous yet?”

  1. Coming from a city that has blown up in the past couple of decades (Tampa) to Birmingham, I can tell you that if you want to grow the city, you need to get a professional sports team to build around. Not a fake football league, not a AAA baseball/basketball team, but a team in the NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA. That’s exactly how Tampa was built up.

  2. I live in Trussville and regularly support all of the events, have a membership to the zoo and botanical gardens, eat downtown, and have business events held there. That being said if Birmingham Metro’s residents don’t want to support their city, I don’t feel obligated to keep it alive. Issues with corrupt old mayors, corrupt county utility thieves, and crime are some of the problems that have always pushed people away, but things now seem to be getting better, just not seemingly fast enough to attract away from HSV’s corporate driven pull.

  3. Yes, It would be great for Birmingham to be home to a big league pro team! But, how do you ATTRACT them and others? David has some of the answers.
    Other needs come to mind: a true International Airport with direct flights; more High Tech job opportunities; high-speed rail or equivalent connecting our many suburbs; give us HOME RULE – the right to decide , grow and prosper FREE of antiquated Legislative restrictions; a staff of highly dedicated Chamber of Commerce RECRUITERS to go out and SELL the MANY BENEFITS of our REGION to attract new business and industry!

  4. Yes, It would be great for Birmingham to be home to a big league pro team! But, how do you ATTRACT them and others? David has some of the answers.
    Other needs come to mind: a true International Airport with direct flights; more High Tech job opportunities; high-speed rail or equivalent connecting our many suburbs; give us HOME RULE – the right to decide , grow and prosper FREE of antiquated Legislative restrictions; a staff of highly dedicated Chamber of Commerce RECRUITERS to go out and SELL the MANY BENEFITS of our REGION to attract new business and industry! Nothing happens unless you MAKE IT HAPPEN!

  5. Eek, it’s certainly not a good sign that the largest city in the metro is declining so consistently. We’re in a time where most metros are growing/booming rapidly. People are moving closer into metros all over, but not really Birmingham. This gives little incentive for a company to drop it’s HQ here. As a young person, why in the world would I stay here? Or especially, why would Birmingham ever be on the map of young people anywhere? A James Beard restaurant or a 40k seat stadium? Nope.

    Pro team? That would help but there are plenty of booming metros without a pro team, like Austin.

    OTM people keep Birmingham afloat but there’s not much motivation to do so. Birmingham is like a run-down mansion in the middle of a middle class neighborhood that doesn’t mow it’s lawn, has unsafe unclean parties every night, and relies on it’s neighbors to clean up the mess on Monday.

    Overall, really, Birmingham’s suburbs aren’t that great either. They’re very average, nice, whatever.

    Consider this too, Birmingham’s home price index has risen about average in the past year but is trailing way behind on it’s rise from the bottom in around 2012. It hasn’t come roaring back like most metros. That gives someone little motivation to buy here. We see our friends swimming in equity and able to afford larger nicer homes every few years. That’s not been the story in MOST of Birmingham’s burbs and certainly not consistent. Not to mention the pending crash which will probably hit Birmingham very hard. Why? Because these big new home prices are NOT supported by anything other than inflation. No growth, no companies moving in, there’s zero reason home prices have increased in Birmingham.

    1. This article is a bit misleading in that the Birmingham metro has been consistently growing.

      As a Trussville resident, I regularly drive 1st Ave N to my office downtown. There are glimmers of revitalizing parts of this area (Avondale, Woodlawn especially).

      Crime and schools have to be addressed to grow Birmingham proper. Additionally, Birmingham has a PR problem in that it always shows up high on violent crime lists which gives a bad look. If you include the metro areas, the violent crimes per capita shrink considerably

      1. Randal, this is true only by the pure numbers, but not true comparatively. BHM metro grew at about 5% I think in the past 10 years. The entire nation as a whole grew 7%. So BHM metro growth is slower than the national rate making it shrink back in national stature. In other words, it slide backwards down the list of largest metros because it grew slower, hence basically shrinking.

        This article is only about Birmingham and I know you’re saying it doesn’t matter because the metro grew (it didn’t really as I explained above), but Birmingham is the hub for the whole metro. If it does bad, the suburbs suffer. Suburbs are judged by or linked to its main city hub for right or wrong.

        But yes there are places that are growing, but it’s mainly people from other parts of the metro. So while Trussville booms, it’s leaving another part of town stagnant. Internal movement often looks like growth.

  6. Your list of five issues that could make a difference should expand to include business. What can Birmingham do to be a fertile valley for businesses? This will help the city and the entire metropolitan area. Crime reduction and better schools will help. Crime is a poison that runs off people and businesses. Birmingham’s schools are run for the employees not the students and produce an undereducated and uncompetitive workforce. Is the City of Birmingham’s bureaucracy competitive? For years many have argued that it hassles businesses and drags out permitting, etc. unnecessarily. Is that still the case? Is Birmingham’s business tax structure competitive? We should have an underdog mentality that tries harder to attract, retain and grow our businesses. Business growth in the City of Birmingham will enlarge the pie for our entire area, while encouraging existing residents to stay and others to move into the city.

  7. It’s also worth noting that while the City of Birmingham financially supports the zoo, Ruffner, the stadium, etc, the people of Birmingham are, on average, poorer than the people in surrounding areas. So we have a situation where the poor are contributing more than their fair share, while people who can afford to avoid contributing unless it benefits them directly. The city contributes to the zoo, and a lot of Birmingham kids never get to go, while someone who lives in Trussville and has a zoo membership likely goes to the zoo and benefits from it’s existence. The poor subsidizing the rich, while the rich avoid paying their share just isn’t a morally around set up.

    1. Are you saying the zoo doesn’t pay for itself and loses money for the city? I would argue that its the OTM people buying memberships and paying the high ticket price (tickets to Bham zoo are equal or more expensive than other great zoos around the nation by the way) keeping the zoo running. Even if it does cost the city, the price of your city NOT having a zoo is pretty detrimental for a metro of Bham’s size.

      1. Brett, I know nothing about the finances of the Zoo, but I do know from the City of Birmingham budget that the City of Birmingham gave half a million dollars to the Zoo last year and is doing so again this year. As far as I cam tell, none of the other 34 municipalities in Jefferson County gave anything. Why should the City of Birmingham be the only municipal contributor? Maybe if other municipalities supported our Zoo then the ticket prices could be reduced. If you have more information, please let me know. https://www.birminghamal.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/FY22-Official-Operating-Budget-Final.pdf

        1. Why should other municipalities help subsidize the zoo? It’s in the Birmingham city limits. Birmingham city receives the tax revenue and ticket sales are. It’s theirs.

          1. That’s the whole point….”it’s theirs” – but people who visit the area to attend events in Birmingham facilities, and then eat In restaurants and stay in hotels in suburban cities…boosting the economies of suburban cities without those cities investing a penny.

            Think of the “welfare” you probably oppose. You benefit from it. You’re welcome.

  8. I lived in downtown Birmingham for over 10 years …I finally left ..the Democrat run government doesn’t enforce the laws . It became unlivable.

    1. Meanwhile, 147 miles down the road, the Democrat controlled metro that just became the 8th largest in the entire country passing Miami, will be hosting the World Cup in 2026.

      Democrats are not the problem.

      1. The path to a Birmingham rebirth lies in exploiting what it is known for nationally and flipping the script; doing a complete 180 full force in the direction of antiracist initiatives that garner attention from corporate America who want the positive attention through allyship with a city committed to redemption.

        All you need is a standard PR plan built around this, beginning with a major outlet press release with your metro leadership signed on.

  9. The article says the reason is black flight.. why does it also read are you nervous in the suburbs? talk about a racist comment or title .. We suburbanites welcome any families of any color to the suburbs where the schools are better. Our city needs to do better in education and crime and it would not lose population and tax payers. The mayor promised to bull doze and clean up neighborhoods… haven’t seen much of this on the news. Any improvements largely made by giving and volunteer work of churches. We love Birmingham, have always lived here and worked. We come downtown often and always will.

  10. I’ve read these Comeback Town articles for years blaming Birmingham’s problems on the suburbs. Look at this article about a businessman investing in Birmingham houses. He was shot, left for dead, and was mocked by passers by instead of helped, until finally someone took him to the hospital. This is Birmingham’s main problem and the reason it’s citizens continue to leave.

    https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2022/06/suspect-sought-in-robbery-shooting-of-birmingham-real-estate-developer-on-citys-east-side.html

    1. Frank, I apologize if you feel that I’ve left the impression that I blame Birmingham’s problems on the suburbs. That is definitely not how I feel. I live in Vestavia Hills. The point I’m trying to make is that we in the suburbs don’t want to surround a vast empty wasteland in the middle. Birmingham’s shrinking population puts us all at risk–no matter what the cause. As I said in the column: “Birmingham needs its suburbs and our suburbs need Birmingham. Our Birmingham region is on the verge of great things, but it will take all of us to get there.”

  11. Nashville here again (with 27 years in the Birmingham area previously). June 28 marks the 60th anniversary of the vote to consolidate city and county governments in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee. It is difficult to attribute all of the subsequent growth and prosperity in the city and Middle Tennessee in general to the citizens’ decision to form a Metro government. But it certainly played a positive role. It would be even more difficult to recommend such a referendum in Birmingham and Jefferson County, since there are far more individual suburban cities in Jefferson County today than existed in Davidson County in 1962.
    https://filetransfer.nashville.gov/Portals/0/SiteContent/Government/docs/MetroHistoryBucy.pdf

  12. A very big issue is overlooked by this article. Due to the “long lasso” annexation method used by Mayor David Van, a very large percentage of Birminghams revenue come from residents of Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook and Trussville. As an example, The Summit, and the Pennacle Shopping Centers as well as many of the tax producing commercial properties down US 280 in Shelby County are in the City of Birmingham. So, the residents are NOT “freeloaders’.

    1. Ed, not only does Birmingham receive revenue from the Summit & Pennacle Shopping Centers, but Birmingham has a 1% occupational tax. Birmingham residents pay these sales taxes and occupational taxes also. However, every big project the City of Birmingham contributes and none of the suburbs do–Railroad Park, Regions Field, Protective Stadium, the proposed amphitheater. Don’t forget Museum of Art, Botanical Gardens, etc. Compare to Nashville which has a metro county/city government and all taxes cover all needs of county and city. I have a friend who is trying to get funding for a big civic project in the City of Birmingham, but on the boarder of Mtn. Brook and Homewood which will get much benefit. Naturally Birmingham is the only city considering.

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