By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
“Things are not perfect, but progress is being made, and a cultural renaissance is developing in downtown Birmingham.”
That’s a sentence from a recent story in the Huffington Post about urban renewal in the Magic City, another example of the numerous accolades in national publications and websites coming Birmingham’s way.
An enhanced national image along with capital investment could propel the Birmingham metro area to another banner year for job growth, said Brian Hilson, president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance.
“We have placed a lot of importance on the enhancement of Birmingham’s image knowing that a strong image is important to economic development,” Hilson said in interview.
He added the positive attention “holds true not only externally—people and companies who aren’t here knowing about Birmingham and thinking positively about [it]—but also people who are here, the internal image, people feeling good about where they live and work and where they make their businesses’ homes.”
Birmingham Mayor William Bell said last month during his State of the City address that downtown is experiencing a building boom of more than $1 billion, “our largest number in the history of the city.”
52 Places to Go
In January, The New York Times named Birmingham as one of the 52 Places to Go in 2017. That’s part of a growing number of honors from outside media properties recognizing Birmingham more for its present than its past.
In 2011 the city had four national-level articles or some form of meaningful recognition in national publications, Hilson said. “Since then we’ve grown consistently each year, and I think the grand total after six years of doing this now, is over 140,” he said. “The New York Times is a good example, but there’ve been many, many others where Birmingham has had a positive mention in an article or a feature article itself, or Birmingham has been ranked as a place to do business or live or visit.”
Even with the enhanced image there is still has much more to do, Hilson said. He sees those efforts as opportunities and not challenges, he said.
That means the business community has to fully leverage “important technology assets, such as UAB and Southern Research and fully engage them into the economic development mainstream,” Hilson said. “What I mean by that is companies coming here and, maybe equally important, starting here and growing here because of the presence of the technology and research support they receive from UAB and Southern Research.
“Those are our leading economic assets potentially. We have a responsibility as an economic development community to fully leverage them, to fully engage them in the economic development process,” he said.
Hilson said he’s looking forward to when potential new companies look at the Birmingham area “not because we can meet their financial needs, because we’re a low-cost place to do business or to employ people or because we can put together an attractive incentive package, but rather because of the quality of our workforce, the quality of our technology environment as the first reasons. And if that’s happening, then we’re probably going to be growing more and better with technology, higher paying positions.”
‘Range of Projects’
To assist with that the BBA will continue “working on a range of projects as we always have, putting together the deals, if you will, to help make certain that we’ve got the right type of investment and responsible deals are being made with companies to come here and grow here,” he said. “But for us to compete at a higher level, and I mean at exponential growth, it will take an enhanced image and a lot more work force growth to enable that.”
Growth can also mean building from within, he pointed out.
“We sometimes call it organic growth, but our ability, again, to leverage our technology assets and encourage the formation of new companies here—if we can capitalize those companies and they choose to make Birmingham their startup home and stay here, that could be equally important as the attraction of new companies,” he said. “So, we’ve had good success with new employers, we’ve had particularly strong success with expanding employers, so we’ll continue to do all of that. But the biggest opportunities are still out there.”
Birmingham’s value as a technology community has to be maximized, he said.
“If you look at where we rank in terms of grant-funded research, for example, we rank nationally year-in and year-out,” he said. “I want to see that level of investment that is occurring in research be, once again, leveraged in the economic development marketplace so it helps grow more companies here as well as attract more investment and jobs.”