Today’s guest columnist is Dick Pizitz.
In 1969, a future mayor of Birmingham, David Vann, recruited a few people to initiate a quiet campaign to consolidate all of the municipalities and unincorporated areas of Jefferson County into a single combined metropolitan government.
He said that the proposal was “an effort to express as a political reality the true city that we have become, consolidating all of our human, leadership and revenue resources.”
The following year, the campaign went public entitled One Great City. That small advocacy group included Jim White, Norman Pless, Arthur Shores, Don Brabston, Bill (William E.) Smith, Thad Long, David Herring and yours truly among others, and met weekly to strategize, write a bill, conduct polling, and meet with Jefferson County legislators. There were numerous others involved, but memories dim over fifty years.
At the time, there were about twenty-four municipalities in Jefferson County, each with their own mayor and council or commissioners. Many had their own police and fire departments, libraries, street departments, school systems, purchasing departments, and other entities of municipal government.
The duplication and waste were unbelievable. Each of the various cities also went their own way in trying to bring business to their communities while a concerted effort would have been so much more effective.
The One Great City campaign included strong promotion and advertising, numerous speeches at civic clubs and continuous banter on call-in radio shows.
Our advocacy group met for many months to plan and strategize with most meetings chaired by Jim White and David Vann. Thad Long devoted untold hours to writing a most complex bill. Arthur Shores and Jim White went to Washington and met with administrators to receive assurance that One Great City would not violate the Civil Rights Act..
The Mayors Association, eager to protect their little fiefdoms, were strong opponents of losing control of their governments. There was even a public debate at the Birmingham City Auditorium before a packed house. I debated for One Great City and my opposition was the mayor of Bessemer, Jess Lanier. Jess was a fine and likeable man, but we certainly had different viewpoints on One Great City. The Mayors Association really turned out their constituents for the debate, and to me, I felt I was playing an away game.
The bill which was written and eventually sent to the state legislature in Montgomery was considered a local bill since it only applied to a single county. Under legislature courtesy practices, the bill would pass if a majority of Jefferson County representatives and a majority of Jefferson County senators voted in favor.
The One Great City bill called for a single vote of all voters in Jefferson County. If a majority voted in favor, all Jefferson County residents would be in the single metropolitan government of Birmingham. No city or county area could opt out.
The bill provided a framework and a reasonable period of time for the election of a mayor and council for the new consolidated government and for the consolidation of police, fire, and other departments. There was a special workout which provided that some school systems could remain in place.
Polling indicated that the vote of all voters in the county would comfortably pass. The problem and the solution were in the hands of the Jefferson House and Senate delegations.
After many months of lobbying and discussions, our group felt the House representatives would definitely approve the bill. As I recall, Jefferson County had seven senators. Three were sure `yes’ votes and three sure `no’ votes, so the fate of metro government lay with a single senator. He made no public announcements, but over the months, he confidentially assured us that he would be a `yes’ vote.
When the bill got to committee, metropolitan government had the votes in the Jefferson County House delegation, but, at the last minute, this senator, who will remain nameless, since he is long departed, announced his opposition. Whether he changed his mind or was sandbagging us the entire time was never certain, but we felt we had been sandbagged. One Great City died in committee.
How different this city would be today had metropolitan government been achieved. Three southern cities with consolidated metropolitan governments, Nashville, Charlotte, and Jacksonville, have grown rapidly as all citizens are represented in the metropolitan government. Businesses have flocked to these three cities. Companies leaving such states as New York, California, Connecticut, and Illinois are relocating to these cities. Young people are remaining as there are wonderful opportunities.
Each city has strong business recruiting teams which have seen much success. Jacksonville, Nashville, and Charlotte all have professional sports teams and outstanding cultural institutions. Single police and fire departments work well and efficiently, and metropolitan purchasing saves untold millions of dollars.
Sadly, Birmingham and Jefferson County growth has been stagnant. Recruiting new business has had lackluster results compared to the three aforementioned cities.
We still have numbers of fiefdoms with little concerted efforts and wasteful duplication. Looking out of my office window today on the downtown horizon, I see exactly three building booms. In the aforementioned cities, they are everywhere.
I was born in Birmingham, raised my family and operated businesses here, and have enjoyed living here, but when I think back to 1970 and the One Great City campaign, it hurts so much to realize what more Birmingham could be today if a single vote had been different.
When I think of this, and I do frequently, I am reminded of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: `It might have been.”
Dick Pizitz is currently the Vice President of Pizitz Management Group which operates 60 Great American Cookie stores in 14 states and Gus Mayer fashion specialty stores in Birmingham and Nashville. Previously he was President of Pizitz, Inc., a department store chain founded in 1895 by his grandfather, Louis Pizitz. In February he celebrated his 93rd birthday.
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).
Click here to sign up for our newsletter. (Opt out at any time)
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.