By Lee Styslinger III
Much has been written about the latest rankings from Business Facilities magazine, which gave Alabama overall high marks and cited Birmingham and Huntsville as having the best business climate among all metro areas their size.
That Huntsville ranked No. 1 in the small-sized metro category comes as no surprise. The northern Alabama region has been on a roll in recent years, landing economic development projects projected to bring more than 3,500 jobs to the area.
The fact that Birmingham ranked No. 1 in the mid-sized category, though, is in some ways more gratifying. It’s a testament to the energetic leadership Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has brought to the heart of our metro area.
To be clear, it should come as no surprise that Birmingham plays a central role in our state’s economy. As home to the University of Alabama at Birmingham – the state’s largest employer – the Magic City remains a tremendous engine for our whole state, generating nearly 20 percent of Alabama’s GDP.
But it’s also no secret that the city of Birmingham faces more challenges than Huntsville. As an example, Huntsville’s median household income in 2018 was $55,405, according to census data. That’s over 50 percent higher than the city of Birmingham’s median household income of $36,395.
And in Huntsville, a stunning 44.6 percent of residents had at least a bachelor’s degree. The same figure for Birmingham was 26.4 percent.
These are factors that affect the success of existing businesses and impacts the prospects for creating new opportunities and recruiting new industry. Businesses succeed in areas where people are prospering. While we recognize and respect Huntsville’s success, we also know that Birmingham has to work harder and smarter to achieve the same results.
The city’s efforts have gotten a boost on both fronts under Mayor Woodfin, who works tirelessly and shrewdly to build a more prosperous Birmingham. His team has a sound approach that focuses on developing core industry clusters, supporting small and diverse businesses, and equipping residents with the skills they need to succeed.
The most recent recognition from Business Facilities magazine is a nice acknowledgment of those efforts, but the real proof can be found in the accomplishments the city was piling up before COVID.
Birmingham has seen more than $1 billion in capital investment since Mayor Woodfin took office. A penny of every dollar of that goes to city schools, so these projects have generated $10 million for the education of Birmingham’s children.
Meanwhile, employment among city residents had increased by 7 percent, which translated to 6,000 more people with jobs. In 2019, Forbes included Birmingham among the nation’s top 10 hottest job markets for 2020.
And in March 2020, Brookings ranked metro Birmingham as 3rd in the country for inclusive economic growth – a score based on actual data about how much metro Birmingham had closed racial gaps related to earnings and poverty during the preceding year.
All this reflects measurable progress for Birmingham.
Of course, Birmingham’s momentum is being severely tested by COVID-19, which has created unprecedented challenges for businesses and cities across the country.
But in Birmingham’s response to COVID, the city’s approach reflects the same urgency and focus that had led to success before the pandemic.
With COVID severely impacting businesses and jobs, the city reacted quickly with the public-private Bham Strong emergency loan program to help get small businesses through the crisis. It also led the Birmingham Service Corps project to help newly unemployed residents get jobs in roles that met real community needs during the pandemic. And initiatives like Birmingham Promise and Prosper Birmingham will help create new career and college opportunities for local high school graduates while also helping to meet the workforce development needs of the city’s current and future employers.
When COVID first impacted Alabama, the City of Birmingham not only set out to address the immediate needs of the community, it also began to lay a foundation for the city’s transition to a post-pandemic economy. The city’s leadership has maintained a clear-eyed focus on current realities – many of which are still somewhat beyond their control – and has also kept a laser-like focus on solutions that work.
Mayor Woodfin led the state in pushing a face covering ordinance, arguing that masks were a necessary element not only to protect citizens but also to get the economy back up and functioning. Though perhaps controversial then, Mayor Woodfin’s logic is now accepted by everyone who understands the science around the virus.
None of us can fully predict what will happen when that science provides solutions for COVID through better treatments and eventual vaccines. When that happens, all of us hope our world will return to something more “normal.” Even now, while the virus impacts all aspects of our society, you hear talk about potential economic winners and losers as remote business opportunities and workplace environments provide companies and workers with more geographic options.
I can’t see into the future any more than you can. None of us know which cities will emerge from this crisis in the best possible position to rebuild. But when I consider the leadership we’ve seen so far from Mayor Woodfin and his team, I’m betting Birmingham will still be on top.
Lee Styslinger III is Chairman and CEO Altec, Inc. This opinion piece will appear in an upcoming edition of The Birmingham Times.