By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (CFGB) last week released the results of a yearlong research project that highlights opportunities for greater regional cooperation across Jefferson County.
The research, conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), shows the connection between regional cooperation and a metro area’s prosperity. The report also examines how other metro areas in the U.S. have found ways to work together to address regional needs. The full report can be viewed at www.TogetherWeProsper.org.
Christopher Nanni, president and CEO of the CFGB and Thomas Spencer, senior research associate for PARCA, unveiled the report during the weekly meeting of the downtown Rotary Club.
“The results are clear: When there is more cooperation in a metro area, there is more growth in jobs, incomes, and overall prosperity,” said Nanni. “While there are different styles and degrees of cooperation, communities benefit when they are able to speak with one voice and unite behind a common purpose or goal.”
Nanni touched on a number of current “positive, collaborative and cooperative” efforts in the Birmingham metro area.
“We all know about the Jefferson County library cooperative which was established in 1978,” he said. “More recently we have the County Metro Area Crime Center that opened just last year . . . and in process is Innovate Birmingham which is a strategic initiative to grow our technology industry.”
Nanni also pointed out the continued growth of the state’s largest employer, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the “unprecedented development in our center city, the designation of our Civil Rights District as a national monument, and of course, the economic impact that Railroad Park has ignited,” he said.
However, the report detailed just how devastating fragmentation and lack of regional cooperation can be.
Spencer said, “Greater Birmingham is the most fragmented community in the Southeast. No other southern city is surrounded by so many suburbs . . . fragmented cities and their metros don’t grow as fast in terms of population and jobs and they don’t fare as well on measures of economic and social progress.”
In just one example, the report compares job growth in seven metro areas whose governmental structures foster cooperation vs. job growth in seven metro areas that are more fragmented. Between 2000 and 2016:
- The seven cooperative metro areas experienced job growth that ranged from 20 percent to 50 percent.
- The seven fragmented metro areas experienced job growth that ranged -12 percent to 5 percent.
Birmingham, one of the seven fragmented areas, had 0 percent job growth in the 2000-2016 timeframe, PARCA’s report shows.
A critical point made by the report is that local governments can cooperate without giving up their identity and autonomy.
“Cooperation is not the same thing as consolidation,” Nanni said. “Cooperation simply means recognizing that we have a shared fate and working together toward a future that will be more prosperous for all.”
He added, “We hope this report is a starting point for a community discussion that needs to occur about how the greater Birmingham area can prosper and remain relevant in the future. Ultimately, the final chapter will not be written by the Community Foundation or PARCA but by the people of Jefferson County.”
Key findings in the report:
- Fragmentation has led to a decline in Birmingham’s prominence and its ability to lead the region. In 1950, Birmingham was the 34th largest city in the U.S. According to the latest population estimates, the city has fallen out of the top 100. Though the latest estimates indicate the city may have halted its population decline, other Alabama cities where growth is strong may eventually displace Birmingham as Alabama’s largest city.
- Fragmentation is a drag on metropolitan growth. The Birmingham-Hoover MSA is currently the 49th largest in the U.S., but its growth in employment and population is slow compared to peer MSAs. Growth is particularly lagging in its central county, Jefferson. Recent projections estimate Jefferson County will add only 8,967 new residents by 2040, a 1.4 percent increase over the current population.
- Greater Birmingham has not developed a viable alternative for regional leadership. While Jefferson County has positioned itself to better play a regional leadership role thanks to recent improvements in its ﬁnances and management, it still lacks an executive branch. Nearly half of the large counties in the U.S. are now headed by an elected CEO, creating a strong and capable executive branch charged with the management of the county government. Jefferson County is still governed by a ﬁve-member commission elected by district. Additionally, the 26-member Jefferson County Legislative Delegation exercises substantial control over local affairs.
- Greater Birmingham needs a spirit of governmental innovation. Across the country, local governments are innovating with form and function, ﬁnding new ways to collaborate, economize, and deliver better customer service. Greater Birmingham need not be bound to traditional ways of doing things.