Birmingham, how do we get our millennials back?

Brian McCoy
Brian McCoy

Today’s guest columnist is Brian McCoy.

Why did I leave Birmingham?

I was a dusty teen in the former coal mining camp, Docena, Alabama playing outside in the mud just 22 years ago.

After serving as a community activist in Birmingham and graduating from UAB in 2006, I had to focus on my career.

I attempted to secure an internship and entry level position in radio and television in the city unsuccessfully, so I grabbed my $200 worth of valuables and jet (in my PT Cruiser) for Houston, TX.

Soon as I arrived, my car broke down but within a week I was given a position at PBS working on the production team of a documentary, which earned an Emmy Award.

Within five years, I was a part of the production teams for the Houston CBS affiliate’s morning show, America’s Got Talent and American Idol, won a fellowship with United Way, hosted my own television special and quickly became respected in the local entertainment industry for starting a music blog. I also served as a leader for a young adult music ministry at a large congregation and graduated from Texas Southern University where I met lifelong friends.

Fast-forward ten years, I’m now in Washington, DC, leading digital strategy in aviation and previously led the digital program for the National Office of the NAACP. These opportunities were why I left Birmingham. Based on my experience, I believe that the city’s success with recruiting millennials is closely tied to good jobs and culture.

Good Job Opportunities

Good jobs are promised often from politician wanna-bees and bees, but what they usually are pointing towards are hourly jobs that offer little upward mobility, promotion opportunities, 401-K, or six-figure salary range. You see it often, a community leader stands in front of a grocery store then says, “This will bring 150 jobs to our community.”

What kind of jobs are being recruited and touted?

Even before the construction of Protective Stadium, there were talking points presented about how many jobs it would bring. Stadium jobs like this listing are often hourly roles that cannot sustain a family long-term or flourishing lifestyle. Our focus on creating these jobs teeters the community upon poverty, which leads to hopelessness and is a contributing factor to crime.

There are many people that I probably would have slapped in the past if I did not have something to lose, so I don’t judge those who make bad choices, but wonder what could have prevented the choice. A good job. Today, I wouldn’t be employed if I had a violent arrest or even worse, I would have lost my grants for college if I were convicted of a drug charge. I avoid those situations at all costs.

Former mayor Richard Arrington mirrored what Atlanta’s Mayor Andrew Young did to uplift wages by opening city contracts to the community, leading to the Magic City being named one of America’s 10 best places to live by Newsweek and one of the most livable cities in 1989.

Mayor Woodfin has made a right step by investing in education with the Birmingham Promise, but in a state with less corporate competition than usual, and industry induced environmental pollution, more private investments are needed.

Culture

It seems as if there’s an identity decision to make, between the city being promoted as a historic destination for progressive civil rights and soul or a Southern Living Magazine cover story.

Who is Birmingham?

In 2013, Washington, DC’s tourism department launched a campaign called #DCCool. It played to the fact that there were so many places to explore in the city, its arts/soulful history and current nightlife that quenched the thirst of any of today’s Instagram models.

Birmingham where the top radio stations are R&B and hip hop, is the birthplace of acapella gospel quartet sound, home to two American Idol winners, gospel music’s reigning artist of the year, the largest HBCU classic in the world, and the flashy USFL, the city’s recent tourism video makes it look like a cookie-cutter southern village. The World Games’ recent promo is on the right track.

A few final questions for leadership to answer:

  1. Where do people gather for entertainment if there aren’t any sports events or concerts?
  2. Why is there no cultural zone that resembles Beale Street, revitalizing 4th Avenue, subsidizing lease agreements for entertainment venue owners, giving them an opportunity to move their live music events to one easily-controlled destination instead of random parts of the city?
  3. What if media studios were created in low attended libraries where there are areas of crime, offering free music, photography, podcast recordings and live shows, like this example in Silver Spring, Maryland? Innovation is key to creating a sense of ownership and culture.
  4. Where would the money come from? The same place we found money to fund, Protective Stadium and sports events. Also, we seem to forget that the steel industry and mines in the Birmingham area funded many of our parents and grand parents’ neighborhood concerts, pools, lakes, social clubs, and sports teams.
  5. And one final question, why would someone move to Birmingham to earn $65,000/year if they could earn $110,000/year in a city with more cultural and quality of life opportunities for the same job?

Birmingham’s success with millennials is closely tied to good jobs and culture. If these are addressed, all else would come together and many of us would come home.

Bio: Brian McCoy is a digital strategist and journalist based in Washington, DC. He serves as the Digital Editor of MyBirminghamGOSPEL.com. More info about him can be reached at: bmccoy.net.

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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8 thoughts on “Birmingham, how do we get our millennials back?”

  1. Right on Spot I moved away in 77 after Graduating Phillips and for the next 35 yrs nothing much changed in Bham especially the North Side but Railroad park Barons ,Uptown things are moving in right direction I would love to see rail from Airport to 5 Pts West with Legion Field district as music venues well we can dream but I like Bham direction keep up the good work Bham

  2. As a 90 year old native son, I have “walked the walk”, This, I understand: Unless you are born into a “going business”, YOU have to start one!
    If you dream of a “ better mousetrap “, YOU have to build it! If you wish for a more responsive city, YOU have to vote!
    But, YOU must be prepared, educated and have that BURNING DESIRE! All those things can only happen if YOU make them happen. I pray enough native sons and daughters will stay behind to help grow ,prosper and improve themselves and Birmingham!

  3. Well said Brian and I know I echo your experience having moved away to make more money and find more/more stable career opportunities. Companies I worked for in Birmingham always seemed to get bought and move their HQ to a flashier city. So I finally had to move to one of those. And I have to say, I’m now able to admit what I was missing in Birmingham. I knew it while I was there, but I was a homer and wouldn’t say it out loud. But there’s SO much more to experience in life as a young professional. Birmingham teases it but rarely hits a home run. Why waist my time there when I could be living it up in Nashville, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, etc AND making notable strides in my career and NOT paying that much for cost of living?

    For me, it’s the large scale sporting events, concerts that Birmingham might get 1/4th of, multiple options of upscale or trendy places to eat/shop etc. See new interesting developments. Things are just generally more “big time” and that is attractive to me and others like me. The excitement and energy in many of these cities is different feeling and Birmingham feels like a boomer city, well because it is.

    I’m honestly not sure what it would take to turn the ship around either. I guess you just have to enjoy who you are and make the best of it and stop obsessing over being Nashville – or just move. Ghassstttt right? Well your kids are moving so why are you staying?

    Now, I will say this though…. As the US changes demographically, it’s becoming harder and harder to find your people/group/friends in these major metros. Certain crowds are being forced out and away from city centers by new cultures flooding in with $ meaning I might have to live 30+ minutes out to find a place where my family feels safe and can hang with people like us.. Not racially (because I know you’re thinking that), but culturally. When you have kids, that’s far more important. That makes places like Chelsea look a little better as awful and boring as it is.

    I still love it and call it home but it needs to be honest about who it is in the eyes of those it wants to keep.

  4. Brian, you are right on target about the kind of jobs that are often brought to Birmingham and Alabama. Most companies come because they can offer lower wages compared to other places but as you stated those jobs usually don’t offer much upside potential.

    Developing the culture is key and your points were well made. I hope leaders take that into consideration in Birmingham, in Mobile (where I live) and other cities in the state.

  5. It’s easy to sit in Houston or Washington and tell Birmingham what’s wrong. It is much harder to Come Back to Birmingham and BE the Change that is needed.

    My challenge to Mr. McCoy and others on the outside looking in at Birmingham…come back and be part of the change to make Birmingham better. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. We need good young leadership to make progress.

    1. John Black, you’re right but no one is going to give up their great lives and high paying careers to come back to Birmingham and for the good of the city that can’t seem to get things right itself. The people in Birmingham hardly hardly care.

      But you want young successful people to leave Atlanta, Nashville, DC, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Denver, to come to Birmingham for what? Limited lower paying jobs with less future opportunities? No new other young folks/familes moving in. You know they’re going to move OTM anyway right?

      This is a problem with Birmingham’s attitude, they nose up people who leave and say “well if yall wouldn’t have left maybe we’d be more competitive.” Sure maybe so, but you did nothing to keep me there in the first place.

      1. I was in Seattle last week and I could feel the love everyone has for their city. Sadly , I don’t think that feeling is in Birmingham. I feel the leadership of Birmingham is a little ethnocentric. The civil rights venues and stories are fine but, my God, is that all there is to offer! In the practically empty Shuttlesworth airport(sundown on a Tuesday) Our mayor said over the p. a. to visit Birmingham and walk in the steps of civil rights pioneers as the big drawing card. This city needs creativity and variety of ideas that are not all aimed at making great intellectual giants up north feel good. We are so much more.

  6. I tried a previous post but it was not very uplifting and rightly so dismissed. Here’s a second effort with all apologies to David who has been most helpful to me.

    What is the possibility of Birmingham encouraging refugees from Ukraine who are seeking a permanent home to come to the city and with our help fix them a neighborhood eventually becoming known as, for instance,” Little Kiev.” Of course ethnic restaurants and Ukrainian culture and arts would be strongly encouraged.

    I talked to a young lady from Kenya the other day that said there was a growing population of Kenyans and Nigerians. “Nairobi Town”? Their restaurants are already here and they are great. Doesn’t Pittsburg have” Polish Hill,” L.A. “Korea Town”?
    Surely one or two blocks could be a beginning. We could have more billboards than the lawyers do advertising our new neighborhoods as drivers approach town.

    Ask yourself if you think Ukrainian-Americans might stop, Polish-Americans or others proud of their culture flying down I-65 might stop, at least once to take a look and shop around?

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