What if Birmingham had a goose that laid golden eggs?

Golden egg. drawing by Adam Stermer
Golden egg. drawing by Adam Stermer

By David Sher

Ever wonder what it would be like to have a goose that laid golden eggs?

You would feed that magic bird to get more and more golden eggs.

Currently, our Birmingham region is struggling to set a direction for our economic future.

We try to attract the headquarters of public companies as we did when we tried to lure Amazon to build its second headquarters here a few years ago. We didn’t make Amazon’s short list and quite frankly I don’t think we will make anyone’s short list any time soon.

Forty years ago we had thirty public companies headquartered in Birmingham. Now we have eight.  Mercedes Benz shocked the world when it built an automobile plant 50 miles down the road, yet when it was time to select a location for its U.S. headquarters, Mercedes chose Atlanta.

We diligently try to attract young entrepreneurs to grow their start-ups here. But if their business is successful, the company will likely be acquired by an out-of-state company causing us to lose the business or be managed remotely. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try, but this is risky business.

It would make sense for us to put most of our economic development dollars into a local entity that is a sure bet–an entity that is

  • Growing like crazy
  • Will never be acquired
  • Will never move away

That sure bet is UAB.

Yes, UAB is our golden goose.

UAB recently announced the planned construction of a $105 million Biomedical Research and Psychology Building.

UAB makes big economic announcements regularly, and yet, people yawn and then we run off to chase some unattainable economic development project.

When I was Chairman of the Greater Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, a group of about 100 business leaders and elected officials visited Charlotte to learn why Charlotte was so successful.

Our first speaker was the mayor of Charlotte.

He began his talk with words that still ring in my ear, “We don’t have anything like UAB, but…”

Wow! The mayor of Charlotte was jealous of our UAB.

In 2014, I asked ComebackTown readers to visualize Birmingham without UAB. To mentally subtract 86 square blocks of facilities, the 23,000 employees it supported, the 18,000 students it was educating, the essential health care it delivered and the hundreds of businesses that relied on its patronage.

That was almost nine years ago.

Look at what has happened since.

The campus footprint now exceeds 100 square blocks after about $500 million in new construction and renovations to expand the education, research, clinical and residential facilities that support the arts, sciences and health care.

Even with the pandemic, more than 3,000 employees have been added and 3,000 more students are enrolled in its undergraduate, graduate and professional schools.

As of 2016, UAB’s statewide economic impact had grown more than $2 billion to top $7 billion, and a new economic impact study now underway is likely to leave $7 billion in the dust.

Just a few weeks ago, Dr. Watts delivered his annual State of the University address to report on the progress — which is quite remarkable.

For instance, UAB’s research funding topped $715 million this past year. For perspective, that is a 50% increase during the past five years. In its Best Global Universities edition, US News and World Report listed UAB among the top 8% of universities globally.

UAB turns ideas, research and scholarship into patents. Licensing companies is the way UAB spurs economic development, drawing entrepreneurs and highly skilled workers to our community.

In his address, Dr. Watts noted that UAB is becoming the leader in commercializing biotechnology in the Southeast. The Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which UAB established to commercialize innovative technologies, now ranks among the top 20% nationally. In the past year alone, it generated an additional $5.6 million in revenues, approved nine start-up companies and has three in the pipeline.

UAB means everything to me personally. As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, my wife is a breast cancer survivor and I’m convinced she would not be alive today without UAB.

UAB keeps us healthy and saves lives, educates our children, teaches our doctors, spins out new companies, secures hundreds of millions of dollars for research, is training the next generation of innovators, and is putting Birmingham on the map as a biotech hub.

UAB is our magic goose.

Let’s feed the bird that lays those golden eggs.

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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14 thoughts on “What if Birmingham had a goose that laid golden eggs?”

  1. AMEN, David! It would certainly make sense for our “Chamber of Commerce Recruiters” to aggressively target industries that RELATE to our medical climate, such as surgical suppliers and manufacturers. UAB is our “meal ticket” that we must continually help nourish!

  2. Go Blazers! Even back in the old days when I was acquainted with James Pittman Jr., M.D. at the Medical School, he said the university was the salvation of Birmingham. He was prescient in knowing that knowledge was power and obtaining grants meant an inflow of money and influence to the city. He was correct, of course.

    And not just him, many deans and presidents have traded this knowledge into national recognition. Dr. Pittman’s stories of how many university deans and officers were “conned” into moving here for a year’s consulting project, only to be offered the full-time job when their project ran out, were truly entertaining.

  3. David
    UAB is very profitable!
    I just heard someOne speaking about it MonJan9,2023…
    The question is does the money only benefit UAB???
    or does it financially benefit BhamCity also?
    tax revenue???
    Does it help future construction per se SomeWhere other than SouthSide UniversityBlvd?
    How about WestSide Ensley, Wenonah, WestEnd, Wylam?
    if not can it help?

  4. This is negative and I do not want it be, UAB in wonderful in all aspects, but it is not he whole story about why corporations do not locate here. It will stay that way until we rectify the city and county school system, they are below average and good corporate owner knows that you cannot get seasoned great employees to move to an area where their children’s education is sub par. The cities here who have great school systems are winners, but everyone else has lowered their standards.

  5. Several years ago when they were raising millions of dollars for the Birmingham Business Alliance it would have been a much better return for the city to have donated that money to UAB. In my option the BBA has been a flop. UAB could have turned that $20,000,000 in to $50,000,000 by now.

    If you have what the world wants they will beat a path to your door. You should not have to beg or pay them!

  6. Just consolidate these 13 school systems into one school system in Jefferson County!!! Bingo Capitalism is public education and such does matter! Why do we have 13 school systems and 30 plus cities and 11 water systems in Jefferson County anyway ? This is 2023 not 1923 or is it?

    1. Take Georgia for instance. Georgia has no city public school systems, only county. There is one public school system per county. Their thinking was there is no reason to compete against each other within the county. I know hindsight is 20/20, but perhaps Alabama made a mistake by allowing separate school systems long ago.

      1. Alabama did not make the mistake. Mountain Brook, Homewood, Vestavia Hills, and others, voluntarily pulled out of Jefferson County schools during White Flight to avoid having to accept desegregated schools and incorporated their own school systems. Today, only Mountain Brook has remained defiant in refusing to accept and is forever land-locked from further population expansion.

  7. Not to criticize UAB, as it is indeed a “golden egg-laying goose” for the city. But successful cities—like investment portfolios—are strongest when their economies are diversified. Birmingham hitched its wagon to the iron and steel industry a century ago, and it suffered mightily when that industry mostly left the country. Medical research and healthcare don’t really fall into the same category, but they can be vulnerable to major budget cuts at the federal level. Think long and hard about which political party and politicians in Congress and White House you choose to support.

    1. Most major corporations give financial support to politicians of both parties. You see it isn’t the politics that matter, rather it is that you have access and power that matters.

  8. Yes indeed as a diversified economic city and county can deliver sustainable outcomes!
    We need many golden eggs! Not going to happen until you have a good school system for all in Jefferson County!!

  9. BINGO! UAB is the “golden goose!” It has been for decades.

    Here are my thoughts. Create a high-level relationship with a comparable department or high-level key person at UAB to develop plans for creating businesses and opportunities that support UAB. Heck, some are already here. An excellent example is Southern Research. There are many others. These, for the most part, have grown organically. We only need a little fertilizer to push that growth along.

    Think about the steel industry. Many, many spinoffs developed over the years from that vast industry. While US Steel was the ten-ton gorilla, related businesses developed around the work of US Steel. Those businesses grew and prospered. Consider how Ensley, Fairfield, and other western parts of our community developed and grew with that industry. It worked.

    Also, think about one of the state’s fastest-growing areas — Huntsville. Again, the space and tech industry was the catalyst for that success, with all types of successful high-tech businesses, large and small, that spun up in the area. That city is now the largest city in the state. Cranes are everywhere.

    Rather than focus on berating other communities for not becoming a part of Birmingham, bring them into this concept. It might even work by bringing in the state and academic community. Make them part of a single team that works with UAB at the highest level. That is, people who wake up every morning thinking about how to further such an idea.

    As someone who travels to Houston regularly for cancer care, I have seen firsthand the enormity of the Texas Medical Center. It’s huge—a city unto itself.

    A company like Mercedes, which chose Atlanta as US headquarters, does so because the infrastructure and related support community are already there and working today. Having to build that infrastructure takes time — a lot of it. In the meantime, the headquarters company needs all of those resources today, not years in the future.

    Healthcare is a growth industry and should be for many years to come. Just look at the national demographics. Old people get sick. That’s the ticket.

  10. UAB is a bully with state and federal government backing. It stifles innovation by getting free grant money from various agencies and then bullies the feckless city of the BHM leaders.

    UAB is the only thing hold the city of BHM together and that is the only positive.

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