New Voices on Regional Cooperation

The people of Jefferson County have heard regional cooperation proposed many times over the last few decades in Birmingham. However it has been proposed, or what it would actually mean, the reality is that most of these efforts have failed. So why would two prominent Birmingham organizations join forces now to push forward a new message that cooperation among Jefferson County’s 35 separate municipalities is vital to the region’s growth and success?

Chris Nanni, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham—which commissioned the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama to produce a 200-page report, “Together We Prosper”—says he and many others involved believe the time is right.

Nanni points to two changes in the region that suggest the region is better poised today for the issue to gain momentum. One is the entrance of several new mayors in influential metro municipalities who have progressive leanings and an openness to consider the idea that attacking goals as a unified unit would help the entire region grow.

The other is the fact that the region’s elected leaders recognize millennials as an important and growing voting bloc, and the report found that overwhelmingly, people ages 18-34 years old expect cooperation from their governments across borders for the greater good of the region as a whole.

“We have new mayors and a younger generation that may be willing to revisit and act on this,” Nanni says.

Getting the Word Out

The Together We Prosper report was released in June, and representatives from the Community Foundation and PARCA have spread across Jefferson County sharing its results. Since June, they have spoken to at least 40 organizations and reached 1,500 people directly, with a heavy focus on business groups.

Together We Prosper has support from some major Birmingham business leaders who serve on its Strategic Advisory Committee. They include former HealthSouth CEO Jay Grinney, former Birmingham-Southern College President Gen. Charles Krulak and retired Innovation Depot CEO Susan Matlock.

“We have an opportunity to address the fragmentation that we live with and, in my opinion, keeps us back from moving forward and creating prosperity for all,” Grinney said in a video on TogetherWeProsper.org. “Other communities have successfully addressed this problem. I hope we take the initiative this time to move the community forward and address the fragmentation in a positive way.”

Nanni considers outreach part of an exploratory phase to determine which entities are open to taking on a more regional role. They have met with many mayors in the Birmingham region—especially new mayors in Hoover and now Birmingham—to get a pulse on how they feel about regional cooperation and a plan to pool resources and provide the region with an umbrella structure to give a voice to regional concerns.

He says most mayors say they want the Birmingham region to be more like others that are more prosperous—yet when talk turns to regional cooperation, there is resistance and fear it will lead to a merging of governments, dissolution of long-established suburban city boundaries and dilution of services.

But Nanni emphasizes that Together We Prosper doesn’t recommend extreme measures that many fear when they hear talk of regional cooperation. “We’ve had questions like, ‘What’s your ulterior motive? Are you pushing for consolidation?’” says Nanni, whose answer is simple: there is no recommendation to dissolve cities, combine school districts, or change tax structures. He says the report indicates the region can improve cooperation significantly without going near any of those hot-button issues.

“In a focus group, we brought together a handful of mayors and asked them, ‘What issues are you seeing?’” Nanni continues. “They basically all said the same things. So we said, ‘Instead of dealing with this on your own, what if there were a mechanism for you to come to and address those issues collectively?’ There seemed to be a real desire to do that.”

He says creating such a mechanism could, for example, be as simple as strengthening and better aligning groups such as the Jefferson County Mayors Association, the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, and leadership from Jefferson County itself. “A common issue or problem might surface from the Mayors Association; research on the issue could be done by Regional Planning Commission; and the government could help implement that. So we feel like we have a structure that could be tweaked or utilized to take on more regional issues.”

Jumping the Hurdles

Nanni says it will take three things to get over the hurdles: Clearing up past misconceptions about what regional cooperation entails and how this effort differs from previous failed attempts. Building trust among the municipalities. And getting each municipality to understand that they have shared fates.

The Together We Prosper report found that Birmingham and Jefferson County have had job growth of only 0.24 percent from 2000 to 2016. Nanni and others involved with the report believe that’s a direct result of Jefferson County’s failure to work together on initiatives that would attract new business to the area.

Meanwhile, when asked about common concerns, many municipal leaders expressed frustration that companies already located in the region decide to expand and shop neighboring cities for the best incentive deal, which pits city against city to win over a business or pay to keep existing businesses. The PARCA report suggests if mayors agreed to stop poaching businesses from one another, they could instead work together to lure new outside firms to the region that would benefit everyone economically.

To improve cooperation, the PARCA report also recommends the region find a champion in the business community to oversee constructive dialogue between cities and create a move-to-action, because “together we soar or sink,” says Daxko CEO Dave Gray, who is a Strategic Advisory Committee member.

“We all rise together and fall together,” Gray said in a recent presentation to the Homewood Chamber of Commerce. “We can’t get too comfortable in our bubbles.”

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin agrees that certain recent initiatives have shown the potential for better cooperation across governments as well as the private sector. “The current public-private partnership on the BJCC expansion is encouraging,” Woodfin says. “The opportunity for support from the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County, the state, UAB and the corporate community benefits everyone. For Birmingham, it has the potential to generate the revenue needed to focus on neighborhood revitalization in the city, which in turn creates more opportunities for the entire region.”

But it still can be an uphill battle, Nanni acknowledges “With 35 municipalities—making us the most fragmented region in the South—we’ve suffered from a mentality of competition over cooperation. But economies are no longer isolated within municipality boundaries. Economies are regional in nature, especially with the role that technology is playing. So when we look at where we’re going to be 10 to 20 years from now…maybe you live in Homewood, and you say, ‘I don’t interact with Birmingham or downtown. So why should I care?’ Because 10 years from now, if the region is not growing, your business is going to be affected. We’re not going to be relevant as a region, and it’s going to affect our ability to attract talent and grow.”