Nashville punished, a cautionary tale for Birmingham

Nashville BIG Trip luggage tag
Luggage tag from Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce BIG trip to Nashville in 2005

By David Sher

I’m sometimes criticized for comparing Birmingham to Nashville.

But in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, when I was growing up, Nashville was a smaller city than Birmingham.

My dad used to take me to Rickwood Field to watch the Birmingham Barons play baseball with the Nashville Vols.

So my friends and I considered Nashville the competition.

But in 1962 the voters in Nashville and Davidson County voted to create a metropolitan government. Nashville flourished while Jefferson County splintered into 35 municipalities and languished.

Nashville also caught a break by being located in Tennessee.

Tennessee has no state income tax and high school graduates are afforded the opportunity to attend community or technical college free of tuition.

But Nashville’s luck may be running out.

The City of Birmingham has certainly had some issues with the Alabama legislature, but nothing like what seems to be happening to Nashville and Tennessee.

Tennessee is hell-bent on punishing Nashville

Barry Copeland, a retired Birmingham community leader, recently wrote a column for ComebackTown that referenced a 2005 trip by corporate and business leaders sponsored by the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce to Nashville. In the early 2000’s the Chamber organized annual BIG trips to prospering cites to learn best practices.

A friend and regular ComebackTown commenter who used to live in Birmingham and moved to Nashville immediately responded.

“It’s been almost 20 years since the BIG group visited Nashville, it might be time to return.

“The changes you’ll see are considerable, even if you limit your tour only to downtown: numerous new high rise residential, hotel, and office buildings; major investments and jobs due to new regional corporate hubs for Amazon and Oracle; plans for a domed stadium and complete reinvention of the East Bank of the Cumberland; new museums, restaurants, and entertainment venues; teeming throngs of tourists.

“But with 7 years now under my belt in Nashville—after 27 in Birmingham—I think a visit from a Birmingham delegation should include not only the city’s physical and economic growth. It should also include a look at an important similarity between the Magic City and Music City. It addresses the idea of intergovernmental cooperation, and it’s a cautionary tale for Birmingham’s leaders and readers of ComebackTown.

“Like Alabama, Tennessee has weak home rule, and the state legislature has been quick to attack Nashville when the city has fallen out of line.

“Last year the Tennessee legislature gerrymandered the longstanding 5th Congressional district essentially out of existence, splitting what was a unified Nashville district into three districts. Each is now represented by a rural Congressman.

“This year the legislature has taken measures to punish Nashville for refusing to host the Republican national convention. It slashed the Metro Council from 40 members to 20 (although a court reversed that decision), asserted control over the international airport, and attempted to wrest control of the highly successful Music City Convention Center.

“The lesson that Birmingham should learn from Nashville’s experience is that cooperation among the area’s municipalities is essential, but not sufficient. Even a countywide Metro form of government and status as the state capital has not been enough to protect Nashville.

“Keep your eyes on the Alabama legislature—not only the local delegation but also on every member who lives outside the metro area. As in Tennessee rural and small town members of the Alabama legislature often call the shots, and the more successful metro Birmingham becomes, the more jealous and vengeful they may become.

“So while the Birmingham area strengthens cooperation among its cities, it should make sure its partnerships and lines of communication include Goat Hill, too.

“Nashville will have a new mayor next fall, as John Cooper decided not to seek reelection. That may not bridge the divide that’s opened between the city and the Legislature, however. Nashville will remain Democratic no matter who is elected, while the Legislature will remain overwhelmingly Republican.

“Successful cities in the South such as Nashville—and increasingly Birmingham too—should never take their eyes off what’s happening in their state legislatures.”

He then wrote me a follow up note, “The Supreme Court just gave you guys a new angle. I’m referring to the 5-4 ruling on Alabama’s gerrymandered electoral map. Should the state’s map now be redrawn so that the Birmingham metro area would have only a single Congressional district with significant minority representation, rather than being divided between several urban-suburban-rural districts? Compare that with what happened to Tennessee-5th District.”

The gross domestic product of Metropolitan Birmingham is greater than the gross national product of Metropolitan Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile combined.

This is a plea to the Alabama legislature to treat Birmingham fairly–so goes Birmingham, so goes Alabama.

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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12 thoughts on “Nashville punished, a cautionary tale for Birmingham”

  1. Interesting. This is the fundamental battle in America today, between big cities and rural areas. Cities are booming and small towns are declining. Actually, maybe “cities are booming” is too simplistic a statement. It might be more correct to say “cities and their suburbs are booming.” In Birmingham a lot of the wealth produced in the city is taken out into the suburbs. But if you look at a political map of America, you see the blue cities (and often suburbs) and the vast red outlying areas. We need some kind of new arrangement for the rural areas. I wonder if we had Universal Basic Income we might be able to get more people to move to small towns. There are too many people trying to live in expensive big cities and suburbs who can’t make it there. It could be a lot of people could live on UBI alone in small towns.

  2. The urban/ rural divide is real as is the race and class divide. There is no simple solution but the human and consumer needs are the same. Again Jefferson County is the key , warts and all with 32 cities and 13 public school systems! Once we eliminate the gerrymandered Jefferson County House and Senate this will create some equity regarding the racial and class issues at play. The economic power house is Jefferson County but we to learn how to partner with these rural communities as China does with global markets!
    Another issue another time for Nashville.

    1. One thing I would say, though, is there’s no doubt that urban areas have become our economic engine. Of course we need rural areas to grow our food and other things, but not much of our money is made there. So we need to find some way to redistribute some of our wealth to rural areas. That’s why I think UBI would be good. As our economy becomes more automated, there may be less need for human workers over time. So somehow people need to have income. Not enough to live comfortably in a city, but enough for a basic life out in a small town.

      So are you saying that if the Birmingham region wasn’t gerrymandered, there would be more progressive representation because it wouldn’t include districts with a lot of rural areas?

  3. This is what you get when you put a historically industrial Northern city in a historically agricultural Southern state. I am convinced that the 1901 Alabama State Comstitution was adopted to blunt the influence of Blacks and immigrants who were pouring into Birmigham.

  4. Birmingham can’t shoot itself in the foot when dealing with the state legislature. Some years ago, I can remember rural state legislators quietly laughing when they saw that the Birmingham mayor and the Birmingham city council each had their own lobbyist.

    I understand the mayors of the ten largest Alabama cities now regularly meet, and that is a great step forward.

  5. Odd stuff. Birmingham blew it ignoring the positive dynamics that made Atlanta a powerhouse.

    Now Birmingham supposed to look over its shoulder at NASHVILLE ? oh my my. Birmingham didn’t learn then (in re Atlanta) and it ain’t gonna learn by gawking at transitions in Nashville TN either

    Pathetic – keep muvvin’

    1. B’ham (and Ala.’s) power structure purposely did not want poor black and white people to be prosperous dwellers. Thusly the title of Atlanta’s populous focus as the ‘city too busy to hate’. That’s been B’ham’s legacy as lo g as I can recall in my lifetime. It’s been known throughout the southeast of B’ham’s posture regarding it’s living attitude. Keep the real money in the hands of a few privileged, and foot on the neck of the masses. Woolah… B’ham will never compete. Keep education a non factor! Resulting in ATL and NASH getting jobs, citizens, companies not factoring in B’ham at all.

  6. In reply to Ted Gemberling a complex yes to the gerrymandering in Jefferson County and throughout Alabama. While equity is a start business and society are highly interactive and capital is very mobile.It seems the legislature in Tennessee is now slicing up Nashville?! Why in 2023? I see the rural Alabama and urban Alabama divide as being more connected than we realize in an economic sense. Are 30 plus cities and 13 plus school systems really necessary! No!!

    1. George, I’m guessing the reason the Tennessee legislature is splitting Nashville up now is they realize the “danger” to their power from big cities. They have to maximize rural power. This is actually related to our whole problem with the Electoral College. It gives too much power to rural areas.

  7. Atlanta has nothing on Birmingham except a bigger airport and a lot of residents sitting in traffic jams. Plus the Falcons, Braves and Hawks. Get the high speed trains to replace I 20 and it will look like the settlers and railroad s carrying the masses West to California . I.E. All these Georgia Bulldogs will be pulling for the Tide when the trains depart. The whole state of Alabama will look like the Gold Rush state of California did in 1849! We’ll bring no sales tax on groceries and much lower state taxes. Bags packed and waiting at the train station. Westward Ho!

  8. Um, Birmingham doesn’t have to look toward Nashville for any cautionary tales at all. It has already been happening g to Birmingham for decades. The reason Birmingham isn’t what Nashville or Charlotte is now are because the Alabama government has been actively destroying Birmingham for many years while the fight in those other states is much more recent.

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