By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
Go back to a “historic” signing ceremony in the downtown Jefferson County Courthouse nearly three years ago. About a dozen area mayors are in the county commission chambers on the second floor.
Before each of them is the anti-poaching agreement, called the “Good Neighbor Pledge.” As part of the agreement, the mayors vow they will not lure businesses away from other cities. They also agree they will not provide incentives for businesses relocating from one city to another. The agreement is signed.
“This agreement was the catalyst for much of the regional cooperation we see today,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Ammons, who worked with the committee to draft the agreement.
Twenty-two mayors who signed the “Good Neighbor Pledge” represented some of the largest cities in the county including Birmingham, Hoover, Bessemer, Center Point, Homewood, Mountain Brook, Trussville and Vestavia Hills.
That agreement, many believe, made it possible for local officials to work cooperatively. “As we saw with the United States Football League (USFL) announcement and recent development of Protective Stadium, regional cooperation makes what was previously impossible, attainable,” Ammons said. “We will continue to work together across municipal boundaries to make Jefferson County an activator of regional cooperation.”
The USFL announced in January that it will play all of its games in Birmingham this spring. Protective Stadium opened in September and hosted the soldout Birmingham Bowl in January.
Jennifer Andress a Homewood City Councilor also pointed to the pledge as a turning point. Last month she wrote a guest column for David Sher’s ComebackTown on AL.com titled “How we’re overcoming distrust that has plagued Birmingham”
She wrote in part “Lack of trust and lack of working relationships hinder economic development and regional success. Many of our local political leaders didn’t know or trust one another, and they certainly didn’t work together.
But this began to change dramatically when the Jefferson County mayors agreed not to pilfer businesses from one other and to work together on projects to help each municipality, and improve our region. And we’re reaping stunning rewards as our municipalities, Jefferson County, State legislators, and business community work together for our region.”
From the success of the new Protective Stadium and the excitement of the World Games to the much-anticipated and long-delayed bridge project at Hollywood Boulevard over Highway 280, 2022 is shaping up to be the year regional cooperation becomes the standard in Jefferson County.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said he eagerly signed on the pledge because it made sense for him and his counterparts.
“We [started] working together — we had to,” Woodfin said. “There’s history here that says Trinity Hospital leaves Montclair and goes to Irondale, we make an offer to steal Trinity hospital away, and put it on 280. No new net jobs, but the city of Birmingham is still giving tax rebates to a business that’s still in our city. What we agreeing to [with the pledge] is listen, “Mayor, this is Mayor to Mayor, if somebody wants to move their employee group from Hoover to Birmingham, voluntarily and let’s at least give notice. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do and support or not support. But we’re not going to steal jobs from each other because there’s no net gain.’”
Jefferson County City Councilors Initiative
Area leaders began to work in other areas as well. The Jefferson County City Councilor initiative was founded in 2019 at the suggestion of Hoover City Councilor Casey Middlebrooks and with facilitation efforts of Ammons, a regular group of City Councilors from Hoover, Birmingham, Mountain Brook, Bessemer, Vestavia Hills and Homewood have been meeting.
Birmingham City Councilor Hunter Williams has been one of the regulars. “It really goes to show the willingness and desire for City Councilors, from different cities to be on the same page and to have that type of cooperation, that type of teamwork, that type of regionalism or regional cooperation,” he said, “. . . we have a group of City Councilors that say it’s important enough for us to meet every week to see if there’s anything that we can do on our own, no one’s asked us to do this . . . it’s a way of having regional cooperation.”
Williams said he senses “more of a team atmosphere” in the metro area than it was five years ago [when I was first elected]. “I see a distinct difference. I can pick up the phone and call any state member of our delegation of the Jefferson County delegation whether it be Senate or House. I can pick up the phone and call any Jefferson County Commissioner . . . I can call my own colleagues too. But I can pick up the phone and they will move whatever they have to do to make sure that we have time . . . like if I have a project or they have a project, vice versa, as far as whatever is there, but you have at other cities that are excited too.”
Chris Nanni, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, who has been pushing regional cooperation for years, said he sees a growing appetite for cooperation “and it is beginning to expand in ways that there’s just a real openness, a growing openness to cooperate on a number of different levels,” he said. “For me, cooperation is predicated on trust and we’re seeing trust grow among mayors and among counties and cities. It’s exciting to see this manifest in a number of different ways.”
Ann Florie, former Executive Director of Leadership Birmingham, said, “I do think trust is still a factor. I think it’s gotten better…because I think if anybody can put something like the USFL [United States Football League] together…then it is a positive sign for the future.”
“I think anything like that is positive, and anything that demonstrates to people and brings tourists here into the community is positive, and an economic benefit to everybody. It’s starting to establish us even more… We already have a reputation for sports and I think with the new [Protective] Stadium, and those sorts of things, makes it an even stronger statement…and that’s something that we can build on for the future.”
Williams said the entities needed to get rid of its “fiefdoms” and beliefs that it can go alone. “Listen, it was clear it was in our best interest for the city not to have ownership for the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center, to have the ownership of Protective Stadium and to be able to use other partners so that it could actually get built,” he said. “If the city of Birmingham wanted to build our own stadium, it never would have happened.”