In January 2015, the City of Birmingham Economic Development office sent a draft letter to the Alabama Department of Commerce to establish a Chinese Consulate in Birmingham.
After periodical follow-ups to the Department of Commerce, the letter went unanswered, according to Scotty Colson, assistant to the mayor and director of the Birmingham Sister Cities Commission.
“It was a long play, a trick shot; I was disappointed that it never went through,” said Colson. “It’s hard to say why we didn’t get any traction.”
The idea for the consulate didn’t originate in Birmingham, but in China. If all the government officials in the chain between wishing and doing had signed off, the city would have been at the center of Chinese efforts to establish stronger roots in the Southeast — and not just for China.
According to Colson, before he drafted letters to the Department of Commerce for approval, the China State Construction Engineering Corporation contacted Mayor William Bell’s office about creating a consulate mall in Birmingham. The consulate mall would have allowed the consulate “to rent space to Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan,” Colson said.
The company planned to build the consulate in Birmingham because the Chinese government wanted a stronger presence in the Southeast. Atlanta is home to the Taiwanese Interest Section and also has ties to Hong Kong. The closest Chinese consulate is in Houston. But building one in Birmingham, so far, is a nonstarter.
According to Colson, “Any overture had to come from the state as a protocol. We can’t do anything until the state endorses it.”
In Colson’s view, with companies like Golden Dragon in West Alabama, the largest Chinese company in the state, a relationship with the Chinese would be beneficial. “It’d be really neat,” he said, “something we could brag about. Promotes more trade and contact with that country. It really does give you a little more international cache.”
It seems that locally government officials are not all on the same page about whatever efforts were made. While Colson said his office sent a letter to the Commerce department, the supposed recipient office seems to think otherwise.
“We are familiar with the Chinese visiting Birmingham from the consulate in Houston, but no request has been made of this agency,” said Stefania Yuhas, special assistant to the secretary of Commerce. “Any contact that has been made so far, which to my knowledge is very little, has been done through the Birmingham International Center.”
Hilda Lockhart, director of International Trade in the Alabama Department of Commerce office, said, “I haven’t even heard rumors about a consulate coming to Birmingham.” Lockhart later added that a Chinese contact who has ties to the Houston consulate stated that “she hadn’t heard anything about it [either].”
Colson, who has heard of the idea, said that areas that were considered to be re-purposed for the consulate were Trinity Hospital’s Montclair campus, the former Carraway Methodist Medical Center, the Liberty National Building on 20th and Fourth avenues S. and the shuttered Century Plaza Mall.
“Ultimately, we never had any update and now our contacts have gone cold so the long shot idea appears dead,” Colson said.
Colson added that talks between Birmingham and the China State Construction Engineering Company stopped five or six months ago.