By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
Jefferson County’s food scene, civil rights history and entertainment have contributed to a 10 percent increase in tourism, say local leaders.
Governor Kay Ivey on Monday announced that one million more people visited Alabama in 2018 than before and spent $15.5 billion, which was $1.2 billion higher than the previous year.
Jefferson County’s number of visitors increased to 3,464,526 in 2018 from 3,352,539 in 2017, according to the state’s annual economic impact report produced by Montgomery economist Dr. Keivan Deravi for the Alabama Tourism Department.
“The interest being shown in the Birmingham area with the birthplace of Civil Rights and the growth of our places of interest …our food scene, our entertainment scene [mean]that Birmingham is really beginning to make its move and be a player, not just in Alabama but in the Southeast,” said Commission President Jimmie Stephens.
Stephens said visitors are seeing a county that is “more inclusive and more attune to the society of today. The old Jefferson County was part of the old South and the revitalization of the [entire] Birmingham area is attracting more people,” Stephens said.
Jefferson County, founded in December 1819, is celebrating its bicentennial this year.
County Manager Tony Petelos pointed out attractions like the Barber Motorsports Museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the SEC baseball championship this week at the Hoover Met as some reasons behind the increase. “Another aspect out there, that’s below the radar, is we’re seeing more and more teams – whether it’s soccer or softball – who are traveling and competing . . . right here in the Birmingham area,” he said.
Petelos added that the economy is doing very good, unemployment is low, and “people are getting out and doing things,” he said. “But what’s good is we have more…hotels coming on line…a couple of them [are] under construction now, some of them are in the design phase and there’s a market…for those rooms and investors are building for that.”
More tourists mean additional revenue for the county and Stephens said that will help provide services to county residents and improve the standard of living. “The [additional] tax revenues that come in, mean additional tax dollars that we can apply to…improve the quality of place for our citizens,” he said.
The county’s historic bankruptcy filing in 2011 seems farther in the rear-view mirror, said county leaders.
Stephens said the county isn’t just experiencing a renewed reputation, “it’s really a rebirth,” he said.
The future looks bright, Stephens said, “with the new things going on at the BJCC, the growth of UAB, the tourism…Birmingham has become a destination. All of that is encouraging and is an affirmation of the work the county government leaders have done in the past.”
Petelos said the numbers could be a sign for even more visitors.
“We have thousands of media people from all over the world coming to the Birmingham area [in preparation for the 2021 World Games] and people that have never been here, the reaction I get just about every time is ‘wow this is beautiful,’” he said.