Yes, Birmingham is experiencing a revivification. New businesses are opening weekly, job growth is on the rise — if slower than in other places — and more young professionals are taking root in the city compared to previous decades.
This growth has not been by accident, according to Brian Hilson, president and chief executive officer of the Birmingham Business Alliance. For instance, Hilson said, Birmingham has plenty of new restaurants, but those eateries are the byproduct of carefully calculated economic strategies that have been executed largely outside the view of the public.
Over the last five years the BBA has been working toward completing the goals laid out in Blueprint Birmingham, their comprehensive economic development strategy for the metropolitan area that was implemented in 2010.
The initiative was supposed to accomplish some substantial goals, including “[organizing] the Birmingham region’s business community to serve as a powerful, proactive and definitive voice for a unified, progressive, regional vision; [improving] workforce development; [maximizing] the economic impact of UAB and the Birmingham region’s full complement of innovators and research-focused entities.”
Without a doubt, Hilson said, the focus of Blueprint Birmingham has been to enhance public/private partnerships in the region in a way that positions Birmingham as a destination for a qualified workforce. In turn, he said, this type of growth will continue to propel the momentum downtown Birmingham is currently experiencing.
The plan consists of 16 main objectives, each containing a number of action items and 150 tactics that will be or have already been implemented. Not all of the objectives have been completed.
Asked how many of the objectives have been completed, BBA’s vice president of communications Lauren Cooper said, “Not all of the items included in the plan in 2010 were still relevant in later years; a lot of the work we began under Blueprint is still ongoing and much of our work crossed over numerous objectives — making any precise answer to your question inaccurate.”
Hilson, however, contended that even with those goals incomplete, the city has made “tremendous strides” toward creating a sustainable economic environment in Birmingham. In the interview that follows, Hilson discussed the importance of having a thorough economic development plan in place and how that has contributed to growth over the last five years.
Weld: What is the importance of Blueprint Birmingham, and how did the idea for an economic development plan come into fruition?
Brian Hilson: Every community has to have an economic development plan or else it is going to be a lesser community. The reason we have a plan like this for the community — and by community I mean the Birmingham metropolitan area… over 100 municipalities and seven counties — we want the community to recognize the full economic potential for the purpose of improving the quality of life for everyone who lives there, particularly the disadvantaged and those with lower incomes.
To not have an economic development plan you can have some growth but you would never really come anywhere close to recognizing your full potential as a community. Birmingham has not always had a consistent strategy. It hasn’t always had one that unified the organizations that take part in the economic development process. That’s one of the things Blueprint Birmingham helped to ensure, is that we have not only a strategy with meaningful goals but also a unified team working together.
Weld: How unified would you say Birmingham’s business community is?
BH: I think it’s reasonably unified. I think the existence of a regional chamber of commerce, in this case the BBA, helps provide for that. It brings together a board of directors that consists of over 100 community leaders. Most of them work or live in Jefferson County. Working under a common strategy, it gives them an opportunity to be unified in their thought and direction. Philosophically, I’m sure there are differences on an individual level. You’re always going to have that.
In Blueprint Birmingham, there is a common plan that has been agreed upon and officially adopted by the organization that is officially responsible for economic development in Birmingham.
Weld: What would you say is Birmingham’s most valuable asset to the business community?
Weld: Do you think there is enough being done to help facilitate that growth?
BH: No. No, I think it is our greatest strength and it is still the asset in Birmingham that has the greatest unfulfilled potential. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is still a tremendous amount of economic benefit derived from UAB. Its economic impact is enormous. It’s our state’s largest single employer with 23,000. It conducts about $400 million in funded research annually. It helps give birth to numerous new employers. That alone is a tremendous amount.
Inside our strategic plan there are a series of targeted business sectors for growth, expansion and recruitment purposes. We’ve had success with some of them, but not all of them. The one that has the most potential is life sciences. UAB is our single largest linkage to growth in life sciences. Having a company like Oxford Pharmaceuticals selecting Birmingham for their manufacturing facility is a great example of what I’m talking about. I’d like to see many more examples of companies who are deeply involved in life sciences and information technology that want to be here.
Weld: How does naming Ray Watts chairman-elect of BBA fit into that strategy?
BH: It was certainly part of it. Our single largest economic strength — the president of that organization is crucial to economic development. If you look around at the strongest economic areas in the country, particularly in the South, they aren’t necessarily the places that have recruited large manufacturing plants. They are the places that have the strongest linkages to a technology-based university. The best example of that is Austin, Texas, with the University of Texas. Another good example is the Raleigh-Durham area with the University of North Carolina and Duke University. Birmingham fits into that because UAB consistently ranks high in research funding. It puts us in a unique position that we need to take advantage of.
Weld: What would you consider to be the biggest achievements of Blueprint Birmingham over the last five years?
BH: There are numerous ones. The single most important method of measuring how a community is doing in economic development is jobs. Birmingham has made tremendous strides in job growth.
To look at ourselves, we have compared the last five years’ performance under Blueprint Birmingham to the previous decade. Our announced job growth during that time is 13,638 jobs by new and expanding companies. That’s a 45 percent increase in our annual average since the plan was implemented. We also did fairly well in capital investment, which drives tax revenues. And tax revenues help provide for education, so there is a cyclical process here that is very important. Capital investment during the last five years versus the previous decade was up over 100 percent.
The ultimate measure is not just announced jobs from a company, but rather actual employment. Birmingham had reached a peak employment of 533,400 back in early 2008 just at the beginning of the recession. Then it tanked and dipped way below 500,000. We’ve gradually been able to get that back to over 520,000 now. Far and away our biggest achievement has been jobs.
Weld: How would you characterize the cooperation between the BBA and city officials in regards to accomplishing these goals?
BH: There has been a lot of involvement… It’s critical to the community’s wellbeing. I’ll tell you, I’ve worked with a number of mayors in my time in economic development, and I have never worked with anyone better than Mayor [William] Bell. That’s just a fact. He’s really, really good at working with companies and helping them recognize that their future may be best in Birmingham. That’s been the case with a number of companies over the last five years.
It’s not just Mayor Bell, there are plenty of others at the state level as well.
Weld: The situation surrounding the Interstate 20/59 proposal has been divisive among Birmingham’s citizens, business community and elected officials alike. Is that a situation the BBA has been involved with?
BH: Yes, and we have. We have participated in several meetings and hosted a meeting with our executive committee with ALDOT’s Director, John Cooper. We have discussed the issue among ourselves and with community leaders that have been participating. We’ve addressed it, but we haven’t adopted an official position. It is something that is on our state agenda. What was said is that we encourage state and local officials to continue working together. We didn’t cast an opinion one way or the other.
Weld: There was mention of a newly developed plan from the BBA. Would you care to talk about that a little?
BH: We’ve developed a new strategic plan. We’ve talked generally about the plan in public meetings, but we have not released the whole plan and don’t plan to. We don’t want our competitors to know exactly what we are doing. However, we are glad to talk generally about what we are doing, but we won’t be doing that until the appropriate time.
I will tell you the new plan will be called Blueprint 20/20. It’s another five-year strategy. We’ve had significant success with Blueprint Birmingham, so naturally we are following a lot of that. With the new plan we’ve adopted a cluster approach to economic development instead of targeting industry sectors for recruitment purposes.
We’ve identified eight business clusters that are our strongest. The cluster approach was created by Harvard professor Michael Porter. Essentially it says if you build your strengths, such as workforce, around a business cluster, which is a group of related industries, chances of growing those are greater than if we target those individually.
Weld: What do you think needs to be done to improve workforce development in Birmingham?
BH: If you don’t have people who are available, prepared, educated or trainable for the types of jobs that businesses in our cluster are looking for, then you have less chance of being successful. The answer to your question lies in a combination of things: improved education, improved training capacity, a better understanding of job and career opportunities for people of all ages and income levels.
One of the things that I look to, not just to measure our success, but feel how we are being successful, is looking at the feeling that people like to live in Birmingham. You’re looking for a situation where you not only connect people with jobs but where people come here enthusiastically without being recruited to fill our labor pool. That enables us to have a stronger workforce that is appealing to new employers. Those companies don’t want to be in a place where workforce development is marginal.
Weld: How successful has Blueprint Birmingham been?
BH: It’s been good. It hasn’t been great. I think we’ve got so much more we can do. I know that Birmingham has been recognized so often as a community with perpetual potential. I think the reality is that Birmingham has been better at many things including economic performance than it has given itself credit for or the media has given it credit for. The way we are perceived outside Birmingham is oftentimes better than how we perceive ourselves.
What’s happened over the last five years is a good indication that we are headed in the right direction. We also know there is still so much more to do. If we’ve been good with this kind of growth plane, there is no reason we can’t be great with a steeper growth curve.