The article explained that businesses locate and expand in downtown areas populated by college-educated workers, a demographic “between the ages of 25 and 34 [that tends to want to live in] tight-knit urban neighborhoods that are close to work and have lots of entertainment and shopping options within an easy walk.”
Rick Davis, senior vice president of economic development for the Birmingham Business Alliance, believes that Forbes simply caught on to what has been happening all along — that there is a “significant undercurrent of growth that almost never gets talked about because it gets buried under the negativity.”
Davis said that people often tell him that Birmingham has the worst self-image of any place, and he agrees that there is some truth to that. “But what we’ve tried to say for the last couple of years is that there’s a lot of growth occurring here, a reemergence that’s going on that you’re not hearing about because the media doesn’t pick up on it and we don’t talk about it — which we should.”
Citing areas around Railroad Park and the new Regions Field as examples of catalysts for growth, Davis said that although the pace of that growth is indeterminable, downtown development is inevitable.
“More and more people are coming downtown, getting apartments, and spreading out. When you get more people people living downtown, everything else is going to follow.”
According to the article, the number of downtown residents has increased by 32 percent since 2000, with 737 housing units planned for construction in the future.
“Those are projects that have been declared as moving ahead…a mix of new construction and rehabilitating older buildings,” said David Fleming, chief executive officer of REV Birmingham.
“We had a very positive absorption of commercial office space in 2012 [net 126,000 sq. ft leased for business use] and we remain a strong employment center, with approximately 12 percent of jobs in the metropolitan area being concentrated downtown,” Fleming said.
“Right now our downtown is approaching $1 billion of investment either completed in the last 15 months or currently underway, with just over half coming from the private sector — which is a good sign.
“It is a solid employment center, and we see growth there not only for larger business, but for a lot of smaller businesses as well. It’s a busy, growing, vibrant place and we see a lot of development coming.”
While many who are moving into downtown are students or graduates who want to live an active, urban lifestyle and appreciate the urban character of a downtown, many older people have pioneered downtown living, said Fleming.
“These might be empty nesters who want to downsize from that big house in the suburbs, they may be retired or nearing retirement and want to continue an active lifestyle.”
In a feature for Weld last November, the owners of What’s on 2nd?, Michele Wilson and Steve Gilmer, discussed their shop’s beginnings in a once undeveloped, but now flourishing, area and expressed optimism for new growth around them.
Wilson said that optimism for development was still grounded as “all signs are good” and that “more businesses are coming downtown, and more people are coming downtown, everyday.
“Whether or not they’re going to buy a loft is a different question, but the trend [for business growth] is very clear. We came down here when there was nothing else, and since then more has been popping up.”
Safety is a concern that Wilson believes pushes a lot of people away from the city center, and although she thinks “it’s a pretty safe place,” Birmingham’s reputation for crime was listed as a drawback in the Forbes article.
“Statistics can tell you that every major city in the country is wrestling with crime,” said Rick Davis. “Now, some of them put a better spin on it than others, and for some it shows up in a better light. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mayor Bell, his staff, and [Police] Chief [A.C.] Roper and I think they are doing some really good things and are combating the problem as best they can, but it’s going to take community support as well.
“That’s a big part of any city that has a successful image of downtown, its suburbs and everything else — the community has to get involved and play their role.”
Being stretched out over 86 city blocks, employing 26,000 and generating $5 billion annually, UAB is significantly responsible for this downtown growth, and its leadership has expressed a commitment to its continuance.
“The recognition Birmingham has received as one of the fastest growing downtowns in the United States is an accomplishment of which many local leaders should be proud,” UAB President Ray Watts said in a statement.
“Over the decades, as UAB has become a world-renowned research university and medical center, Birmingham has experienced a renaissance – ascending from a steel-based economy into one that is recognized for research and development, medicine and service industries like banking. Knowing UAB’s dedication, and having seen the talent and commitment from leaders across the city and region, I am confident Birmingham and UAB will continue to grow more competitive in the global, knowledge-based economy,” Watts said.
“Like UAB, Birmingham’s greatest asset is its people, and we do what we can to encourage our best and brightest to stay here. We will continue to partner with the Birmingham Business Alliance to identify new and innovative ways to connect our graduates to workforce needs in the local business community.”