Birmingham doesn’t need Mtn. Brook, Vestavia, or Hoover to grow

Jeffrey Bayer
Jeffrey Bayer

Today’s guest columnist is Jeffrey Bayer.

Last week, after a successful annexation vote, Mayor Sandy Stimson of Mobile proudly proclaimed, “We’re bigger than Birmingham!”

Up until recently Birmingham was concerned about falling behind Huntsville.

Now we’ve fallen behind, not only Huntsville, but also Montgomery and Mobile.

It’s important to note that Metropolitan Birmingham’s population is more than twice Metropolitan Huntsville and the gross domestic product of Metropolitan Birmingham is greater than the gross national product of Metropolitan Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile combined.

On Jan.1, 1974 the city of Lexington and Fayette County became the first Kentucky communities to consolidate city and county governments into a single system and by the early 2000’s Lexington was on the verge of passing Louisville as the largest city in Kentucky.

Louisville, however, was not about to be passed by Lexington, so in 2003 Louisville created its own metro government with Jefferson County to remain the largest city in Kentucky. Louisville has been celebrating the benefits of that merger ever since.

You may say it doesn’t matter that we’re not the largest city in the state because everyone knows the City of Birmingham’s population does not include 34 other cities in Jefferson County, but any out-of-state company or individual researching Birmingham doesn’t know that. To them we are the Alabama city that fell  from first to fourth in the first three years of this decade.

Exactly ten years ago I wrote a column for ComebackTown titled, “An idea that will fix Birmingham.”

I thought it was the right idea then and I believe it’s the right idea now.

Here’ what I wrote on July 30, 2013…

“Haven’t we had enough?

 Aren’t we tired of falling behind our peer cities?

 Cities such as Charlotte, Nashville, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Louisville have created their opportunities for growth because they have consolidated municipal services–not just collaborated, but changed their method of governance.

We say it can’t be done here because the cities of Vestavia Hills, Homewood, Hoover and Mountain Brook, to name a few, could never agree to come together–much less with the City of Birmingham.  What is not said out loud is the affluent suburban communities were created for racial separation and continue today for the same reason. No one’s willing to put their self-interest behind the greater good for a dynamic metro movement.

 I would suggest we forget about these surrounding pristine municipalities, and focus on an initial step to bring together the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County. They are the two largest governments, have the most in common, could generate the most in operational economic savings, and could probably eliminate the need for occupational taxes due to operational efficiencies–thereby ridding an economic model that impedes the very growth they both covet.

 Two separate governments, divided by a park, providing the same services, makes NO sense with Birmingham saddled with providing the majority of financial support for our critical metro services (airport, museums, new hotel and entertainment district, transportation system… to name a few) and it has the poorest overall population. Where is the logic?

 Combine the two governments, leave the others out, and bring together the majority of residents in our metro area into one powerful operational unit.

 We are surrounded by many examples of successful models in the aforementioned metros; however, we scream we are so unique that it can’t happen here. Why is that? We know why!

 Trying to convince the affluent suburban communities is a waste of time and will keep us last in the region for decades to come. Let’s be pragmatic.  The coming together of the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County is natural and can be done NOW.

 Our citizens should demand it…NOW!”

Jeffrey A. Bayer is past President and CEO of Bayer Properties.  Bayer Properties, under his leadership, developed our very successful Summit Shopping Center, and grew from a local property management company to a national commercial real estate firm.  Jeffrey’s a Birmingham native and a true Birmingham supporter.

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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32 thoughts on “Birmingham doesn’t need Mtn. Brook, Vestavia, or Hoover to grow”

  1. The recurring theme from many of these articles (many of which have been contributors’ articles) stress the refrain of consolidation of municipal government at the county level, albeit this time with a twist: Birmingham and Jefferson County should merge and forget the others because it’s “never gonna happen”. The usual examples are cited: Louisville, Nashville, Indianapolis, etc. To me, the notion of combining local administrations to shore up a declining population seems disingenuous and too much like cheating, my own personal opinion of regionalism notwithstanding. As the article above mentioned, Birmingham’s metro population is more than double that of Huntsville’s and it’s GDP is larger than the other three major cities in Alabama combined. Birmingham’s population center shifted south of Birmingham – the overall metropolitan statistics have been relatively solid despite Birmingham’s population decline. The point is that the population of a city only tells part of a story. Are we not too naive to think that prospective companies do not have scores of analysts that study census and demographic data when making their decision to relocate or establish a branch office? Will they not smell something sour from a region pumping up its population figures with a unified city/county? I am originally from Birmingham; I’ve lived in Huntsville [twice], and, while Huntsville is rapidly expanding, it has a LONG way to go to match Birmingham in overall urban development. It to me resembles an overgrown suburb itself – its downtown area could be mistaken for an office park if noticed at all. All of the action is at Redstone Arsenal/NASA/Research Park. Huntsville has Madison and a sprinkling of other communities that may not be worth considering. Now that I reside in Ohio, Cincinnati and Cleveland are having to contend with taking a backseat to Columbus, whose population is soon to approach 1 million. There are rumblings of regionalism amongst these cities to regain supremacy of Ohio. I understand that in the end it’s about tax revenue, and Birmingham proper cannot hold a candle to say, Vestavia Hills when it comes to median income, which is why Birmingham is in this “build it and they will come” mode. There is another way to attain a positive outcome that doesn’t necessitate regionalism but it requires local leaders in both Birmingham and the surrounding areas gaining some maturity and stop pointing fingers at one another and to cooperate. As this will not ever happen, continue to see Birmingham’s problems remain unresolved. The past is the past – stop making the past the future.

    1. You’re missing an important point he made, about operational efficiences:

      “Two separate governments, divided by a park, providing the same services, makes NO sense with Birmingham saddled with providing the majority of financial support for our critical metro services (airport, museums, new hotel and entertainment district, transportation system… to name a few) and it has the poorest overall population. Where is the logic?”

      1. I have not overlooked that. Birmingham’s low tax revenue is not sufficient for it to maintain the lion’s share for all public works projects – I do agree with this. This is why Birmingham is doing what it can to attract newcomers with its “build it and they will come” approach. The lack of cooperation from other municipalities in this regard contributes to the overall half-hearted, half-scale results from many of these projects as other municipalities view it as a “Birmingham only” project and not benefiting the region.

  2. Can someone define Metro Birmingham?
    Again what about the thirteen plus school systems in Jefferson County and the thirty two plus cities? This is the economic engine of Alabama. Notice how the County Delegation passed a state law forcing the state to provide Birmingham Southern College a low interest loan of 30 plus million. Is there a loan forgiveness sentence tucked into the law? Good for Metro Birmingham!!!

    1. Metro Birmingham is defined as the following counties: Bibb, Blount, Chilton, Jefferson, St. Clair, and Shelby. There are 35 municipalities in Jefferson County and 12 school districts.

      1. Oh boy six counties!!
        I suspect these six County Commission never meet nor the six delegations? I still say the Jefferson County delegation which is the largest economic power house in Alabama inspite of the 12 school districts and 35 cities . Which means the Jefferson County Commission is still in the game as most senators and house members live somewhere in Jefferson County except for those that are gerrymandered into the Delegation.
        Another federal lawsuit in the works again against the state for drawing these state house and senate seats while ignoring the realities of the racial demographics in the state and in Jefferson County! Stay tuned indeed!! Does anyone know what the Supreme just said in the Milligan v Alabama that is back before the federal three judge panel again?

  3. My take: I am for all proponents of
    continued economic development for our REGION. Lately, it’s been slim pickings. Historically, our city’s founders dug mines and brought us HEAVY INDUSTRY . The Magic City! Cheap foreign steel finally took its toll. But, we fortunately hitched our sails to an Alabama senator’s law that enabled Birmingham ( and others nationwide) to build HOSPITALS with matching government funding (Hill-Burton Act). That beginning is UAB today.. our regions largest employer! My real estate business associates most always considered the population of the METRO (Birmingham’s six counties) as the litmus test. But, today’s highly competitive economic recruiters surely use the most flattering statistics available for them. The idea and need for OUR REGION to show power and clout can’t hurt. ( BIRMINGHAM + HOOVER = 284,000 population = No. ONE)..but, “numbers “ are not everything…..to me, meaningful REGIONAL economic growth needs the ardent desire and enthusiasm of all of our citizens and politicians ….dedicated to tell our story of success and make our best offer to every potential investor…NOTHING HAPPENS UNLESS YOU MAKE IT HAPPEN.

    1. So there is some Magic with Birmingham +Hoover being 284 ,000 as one city?
      What is the population of these 35 cities in Jefferson County? I guess Jefferson is still the largest county in Alabama!! Yeah

      1. Statistically, Jefferson County is still the largest county in population by a large margin [~30%]. Madison County is the 3rd largest, which is telling of a city’s metropolitan statistics. City population only accounts for so much. Nonetheless, Birmingham’s metro population has stabilized while the other cities are expanding from those migrating from outside the state (especially Huntsville). After awhile, talk of merging municipalities will not mean much if these other cities continue growing, or, if they get the idea to merge their governments. A Huntsville-Madison merger or a Mobile County government will definitely place Birmingham in a pinch.

        1. Despite all of the numbers and figures, none of the other cities appear as though they’re “larger” than Birmingham, they simply have more persons residing within the city limits. They look good on paper, but as far as the state itself is concerned, they lack an ‘urban’ character that Birmingham possesses. Mobile has a taller building (yes, A building), Montgomery and Huntsville are not remarkable in that regard. Why is Birmingham attempting to compete with these cities is my question? It should be competing with cities that have similar METRO populations.

          On a national scale, Mesa, AZ is “larger” than Pittsburgh as more people live within its city limits, but if anyone were to view these two cities side by side, who would think Mesa, AZ was larger? It’s like visually comparing Chicago to Omaha, NE.

          Birmingham still has some pull because it still has the largest metro population in the state – large numbers of people work there, they simply do not live there (they’ve piled into these other suburbs that are what I call “false big cities” that only have a large population as it is a large bedroom community but the real industry and commerce is elsewhere). Lots of major cities are experiencing these same declines as it is not unique to Birmingham. To further use Pittsburgh as an example, they’re teetering into the “200k Club” as their population will fall below 300k for the first time in decades. A lot of smaller cities are eclipsing historically larger cities in city population only. Regionalism to me is only a band-aid approach which doesn’t truly address a root cause for the decline.

  4. Mr. Bayer wrote in this very blog about his “Idea to fix Birmingham”. An idea without action is just a dream. There seem to be plenty of dreamers on this site. Dreamers that like to talk about ideas but don’t put any action behind their words.

    In the 10 years since this idea to fix Birmingham was published, has legislation been submitted to consolidate JeffCo governments? Has any legislation been brought to consolidate any departments of regional governments in the last 10 years?

    Maybe just maybe what we need is Leaders rather than Dreamers. Maybe Birmingham needs someone to put forth labor, sweat, and effort to make changes rather than simply continuous chatter from the dreamers living Over the Mountain.

    Everything you want to see changed requires your action.

  5. Legislation to consolidate these 35 cities and 12 school systems would be DOA ,but it would create a lot of buzz in Alabama! We are known all over the world for hating each other and still fighting the Confederate War against the United States so why not? Mr Pizitz was way ahead of his time son we must admire his vision of a better way of life for all of GOD’s children. If the senate and house delegations can unite to bail out Birmingham Southern they can draft and enact a law to consolidate! Do not hold your breath with the gerrymandered Jefferson County! There is a federal lawsuit pending against Jefferson County to realign the five county districts voting lines inside Jefferson County only. Can you say Alabama Legislators take notice in the federal courts!!So sad we have to litigate basic economic justice in this county and state all the time!

    1. There was atrocious gerrymandering in New York when I was there – sometimes it was done to where one city block was gerrymandered in and out of another district based upon the median income of those residing in a particular building. They also did it among racial and ethnic lines as well. These political analysts study all of this demographic data.

      In Alabama, all municipal decisions are handled at the state level per the Constitution. So, if Birmingham and Jefferson County hypothetically wish to merge, Montgomery will have to sign off on it. It could easily become gridlocked at the state legislature.

      1. And there it is. Montgomery, and the power structures there, DOES NOT WANT a unified Birmingham. That would reduce the good ol’ boys’ power and influence at the state level, and would result in a large voting bloc that doesn’t necessarily play nice with the “Alabama is a Republican state” reality that exists today.

        An economically successful Birmingham (which would follow along nicely after the massive waste of 30+ individual municipalities being combined as a unified government) threatens the status quo of the state. Those same good ol’ boys see how Atlanta drives GA politics and they don’t want it.

        1. Very true JS!
          Alabama nor Birmingham can run from its past nor can America! Read the 1619 Project!
          We own it 24 and 7! I fully embrace All of our history and the vestiges there off that are still alive and well today!

      2. I just do not understand why legislators in Montgomery hate Birmingham and Jefferson County so much? This is the economic engine for Alabama. Why not embrace the golden goose laying eggs of opportunity?

        1. As far as the state is concerned, the economic engine has shifted towards Huntsville and Mobile due to recent economic activity. Huntsville has aerospace and defense, Mobile has more or less heavy manufacturing, but Birmingham has biomedical research and banking. Montgomery’s basic attitude is: “what have you done for me lately?” Their thought could be that Birmingham has had its day in the sun so now these opportunities belong elsewhere. It is a sad story really. Birmingham mirrors other Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Gary, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc. in this way.

          1. These rust belt cities are repurposing themselves!
            Their locations are pivotal to the Global War on capitalism!

          2. I think there can be too much emphasis on economic growth, as if it is an end in itself. Sometimes you need to think more about having a decent place to live. If you have a decent place, people will want to move there and do business. This means thinking about social cohesion. People in the suburbs are going to continue to make money in Birmingham. They are going to continue to come to brewpubs and concert halls in Birmingham. So let’s all appreciate the importance of Birmingham. That doesn’t mean putting other places down. I like to visit other places, but I live in Birmingham.

            A good example of a mistaken investment is the Northern Beltline. Here are some quotes from the article below. “One factor driving optimism in the project? Nearly 70% of respondents believe the Northern Beltline could have a similar impact on commercial and residential development as Interstate 459 did for the southern portions of the metro.

            “The completion of Interstate 459 ushered in a significant era of development around its perimeter and helped fuel growth in suburbs like Hoover and Vestavia Hills, among others.

            “Many believe that could happen in northern Jefferson County, with 34% of respondents saying they believe the potential for opening up new cities and suburbs to development is the biggest potential benefit of the Beltline.

            “While the majority of respondents have positive expectations for the Beltline, many believe it will be awhile before they take shape. Only 54% of respondents believe it will be complete by 2050.”

            So they think suburban sprawl is a good thing. Real estate interests will make a lot of money. But as someone pointed out, this will only mean that some people will move from Birmingham or other cities to these newly developed areas. Not that many people will move here from other parts of the country or world. So it will cause development in these new areas and stagnation and decline in other areas of the metro area. It’s all about putting the real estate and highway industries before others. And the more sprawling an area is, the harder it is to serve it with public transit. Public transit helps to build social cohesion.

            https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2023/07/26/does-the-northern-beltline-still-fit-birmingham.html?utm_source=st&utm_medium=en&utm_campaign=me&utm_content=BB&ana=e_BB_me&j=32209276&senddate=2023-07-27

          3. Ted I really like that concept of social cohesion!
            Very pragmatic approach to living!

          4. This is not true. The Bham metro’s GDP still dwarfs Huntsville’s and Mobile’s economic contributions to the state.

  6. I do agree with some of your points being that economic progress is only one metric in assessing the health of a community. But it takes more than clustering people together to foster social cohesion. The older I get the more I notice technology having an increasingly firmer grip on its users. You can have public transit but that doesn’t mean it will spark conversations amongst the passengers if they’re all involved with their touchscreens. Yes, the bulk of Birmingham’s metro is comprised of those who migrated from the city in the 60s and their descendants with few transplants from elsewhere versus Huntsville, where every third person is either from elsewhere in the U.S. or the globe. This is one of the reasons the region is stagnant: it still has a stigma attached to it. We can not put lipstick on a pig and build amphitheaters and stadiums and think that will bring in the crowds. Other cities are doing the exact same thing. I think what the nation wants to know is that Birmingham can own up to its past and change. It can look back at that era as a defining moment but not attempt to bury or suppress it or perceive it as shameful. Birmingham has failed in this regard.

    1. I think the thing to realize is people are going to come to Birmingham whether they think they like it or not. People have mentioned all the brewpubs. That has become a major industry in Birmingham. I think a lot of old industrial properties have been turned into brewpubs or distilleries. There’s another bar down near the Rotary Trail called something like “Good Dog.” People can bring their dogs to play with other dogs while they enjoy drinks. I think Birmingham might be becoming one of the top dog cities in America. The brewpubs almost always allow dogs to come inside. I think people come to these places regardless of their politics. People need to embrace Birmingham more.

      But in spite of what the city has going for it economically, there is no doubt a lot of the residents are not getting a fair deal. Their real estate is often almost worthless. Birmingham should have a higher minimum wage. If it was higher a lot of those neighborhoods would be doing better. Here is a video that says Birmingham is the most affordable large city in the country. He says our median home price is only $100,000. I told him I think that is skewed. It’s only that low because a lot of people wouldn’t be able to get anything for their homes.

      1. Hmm…I am admittedly ignorant of the microbrewing community (I do not drink); if Birmingham is positioning itself to be a microbrew Mecca (“Milwaukee of the South”) then that may just work. I’m not a pet owner so I’m not aware of that aspect either.

        The majority of residents in Birmingham are largely renters with either absentee landlords or the properties are owned as agglomerated securities by a real estate investment firm. Either way, the properties are poorly managed. As I was an individual who lived in Birmingham proper growing up, the overall goal for many, many people who live there was to acquire enough money or to accept the latest opportunity to leave. It used to be that one had the goal of moving to a better neighborhood with better housing and less crime, but as that is no longer the case for most, they want to leave. If you were to raise the wages, how many would likely stay in Birmingham? This is not an endorsement to maintain the status quo of course, I’m just being realistic.

        1. “If you were to raise the wages, how many would likely stay in Birmingham?” Of course people have the right to use money they make as they see fit. I hate to mention race, but the motivation for “many, many people who live[d] there” in the 60’s and 70’s for leaving was racial. Since Birmingham is now 73% black and most people who live here are at peace with its ethnic makeup, it is difficult to believe that a high percentage of the people who would get the higher wage would want to leave.

          1. It is not difficult for me to believe it. Like I said, I grew up in Birmingham proper and in some really bad neighborhoods. The majority of the people living there are not bad people, they want what is best for themselves and their family but they cannot afford better so they’re stuck. No one wants to voluntarily remain in poverty, crime and despair if they have the means to go elsewhere, I’m just saying. A small segment of the city’s population is responsible for virtually all of the grief. Yes, 73% of the population is black and the white flight of the 60s through the 80s precipitated the rapid decline, but I do not think that should be as important as the economic situation at present. A lot of people talk of Birmingham but most have not set foot in West End, Ensley, Wenonah, Smithfield, Norwood/Druid Hills, Collegeville, Kingston, Gate City, Fountain Heights, etc. I know those areas like the back of my hand because I lived in many of those neighborhoods. The low wages separate Birmingham from say, Huntsville, where there are lots of high-wage earning engineers gainfully employed and living in well-maintained homes in well-kept neighborhoods. Where are all of these six-figure incomes going to come from to save Birmingham? Where is the suitable housing stock for someone in that tax bracket in Birmingham? Where are the quality schools for someone who wishes to start a family and raise them in Birmingham with that sort of income? How is all of that going to be accomplished? Otherwise, Birmingham will have to steal 20 – 30 somethings from Vestavia-Hoover and so on with loft apartments downtown and bars and amenities to shore up a declining tax base.

    1. Things can change only when people realize that they’re just as complicit in the status quo as those they cast blame. You must become the change you wish to see.

  7. “BIRMINGHAM DOESN’T NEED MTN. BROOK, VESTAVIA, OR HOOVER TO GROW”. Actually it does, but perhaps not in the way you might think. I’m not talking about consolidation or county-wide government. Follow the money, especially to the OTM communities where most of it resides. Then ask yourself how much growth in the City of Birmingham or across the entire metro area those communities are willing to accept, if it impinges upon their comfortable way of life. After decades of separation from Birmingham, have they become complacent with the status quo? Would they be pleased if rapid growth in the City of Birmingham or in other parts of the area threatened their comfort zones? Would they accept the pressures from developers to build more housing in their towns to accommodate significantly increased population in Birmingham or elsewhere in Jefferson County—especially if that meant more students in their schools? What about traffic and congestion that increased their commute time to UAB or downtown Birmingham? Or if the area saw dramatically increased tourism? (Today suburbanites can fairly easily head to Five Points South, Lakeview, Avondale, etc., for dinner or drinks at a brew pub. What if one of those districts took off like Lower Broadway and the downtown entertainment district here in Nashville? Yeah, the tax revenue and national attention would be great. But an estimated 200,000 visitors converge on Lower Broadway each weekend. How would folks from Mtn. Brook or Vestavia like to fight with such crowds for parking and a restaurant table every Saturday night?) What if the residents of those communities started seeing themselves outnumbered by strangers at the grocery store—including cars with California tags or shoppers speaking foreign languages? (That’s very much a reality in Nashville.) For now these may be rhetorical questions in Birmingham, but they may not be forever. Whether or not any of the OTM suburbs agreed to consolidated government, the residents of those suburbs need to ask these questions of themselves for the entire region to succeed.

    1. Robert makes a very pragmatic observation regarding these OTM folks! I live in the city by choice as they choose to live in one of the many cities in Jefferson County! Birmingham will continue to be the largest city in Jefferson County!
      Hoover seems to be more connected than the other cities? The focus on poverty and crime and public education is a must if the business community broadly defined wants to have more consumers with cash to spend!!

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