Looking south at Birmingham from Nashville
I just got back from a 50-hour trip to Nashville as one of 100+ participants in the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce’s “BIG Trip” (Birmingham Innovation Group)… the 4th such inter-city trip in as many years where the chamber takes this community’s business and political leaders to another peer city to learn about what works (and doesn’t). Here are some random thoughts and observations typed into my Blackberry during some of the meetings:
- Sitting in meeting after meeting here in Nashville, one begins to start sipping at the KoolAid cup. I haven’t seen anything “better” here than Birmingham. Yet, there’s something about this place. Nashville’s Mayor Bill Purcell recited success after success in a very engaging way to the participants from the Birmingham chamber’s “BIG Trip”. Sitting rapt in attention, leadership from the Birmingham region marveled at the fact that a city’s mayor could be so engaging.
- Mayor Purcell says his main focus is on education and improving it. Second, safety is critical. It’s no longer acceptable to be from a safe neighborhood, because everyone deserves safe places. Quality of life is a close third. Green spaces, bike trails, and other important amenities are critical. All of the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) monies raised in the downtown area has gone towards housing in the urban core.
- The Mayor has performed an audit for schools and police and published it on their website for public accountability… at www.Nashville.gov.
- One key difference between our two cities is that everywhere we went in Nashville, certain key elements were repeated with regularity. Everyone reminds you that it’s the “Music City”, they are building building building, and they have an undefeated ice hockey team. Without exception, the speakers are more interested in sharing information with us rather than touting their own self importance.
- Race is an issue in Nashville just as it remains in Birmingham, but blacks make up only 20% of the population. 40 years ago the leadership was driven by the thought “we don’t want to be Birmingham.” Leaders such as Francis Guess of The Danner Company just made changes and didn’t grandstand about those changes. Oh, by the way, he was an impressive business man who just happened to be African-American.
- A leadership challenge recognized as an issue was how to pass the baton to the next generation. I don’t see our leadership in Birmingham thinking about that… but that’s why groups such as Catalyst are so important!
- Nashville is a joint city/county government, complete with a mayor and 40 councilpersons! Many of the great things they are accomplishing are only possible because of this setup. I heard one person suggest that while it’d be tough for us to follow suit (that might be an understatement!), perhaps we could learn from their combined school systems and merge the Birmingham City Schools with Jefferson County Schools – it makes so much sense that it’s bound never to happen .
- Live the plan… Nashville has spent the last four years educating the public about urban design principles. The master plan has been bound as a hard copy coffee table book… making it have relevance and stay on top of mind, rather than be thrown onto a shelf.
- The physical environment sets the stage for the citizenry… driving social interaction. Nashville recognizes this and is taking massive (!!!!) steps forward in this regard.
- The local paper has chosen to celebrate the positives AND expose the pitfalls of Nashville. The main paper plans to coordinate with the region’s community papers on regional news discussion. The lead editors have been tasked to develop a strategy for covering the region better as the region grows. Topics will include transportation, quality of life, education, and leadership as they deal with regionalism. Wouldn’t it be AWESOME to get the same engagement from OUR paper?!?
I don’t think it was as impactful as the Charlotte trip last year (which I missed) and didn’t have the thought provoking effect as the Baltimore visit the year before, but all in all it was a successful trip. Time will tell how the new knowledge gained will lead to different changes in the community and what it will inspire in our elected officials. Last year, Commission President Langford and Commissioner Smoot came back from Charlotte talking about digging up the old trolley lines and bringing this form of transportation back to Birmingham. I didn’t hear any comparable buzz from this trip.
Perhaps the best thing that will come from our Nashville trip is that it validated SO much of what is currently good about Birmingham. It might not result in many NEW initiatives, but rather reaffirm the efforts currently underway to make Birmingham even greater than it already is!