Birmingham Mayor William Bell sees widespread value in economic development

Two years.

That’s all the time Birmingham Mayor William Bell said he asked of corporate leaders to improve the business climate when he took office in 2010.

“Businesses were moving out, or threatening to move out, and what I tried to do was go to each and every major business that I had gotten word was not satisfied with the direction of the city, and I asked them to give me two years,” Bell recalled. “I knew we had to do some things to make the city grow.”

The patience apparently paid off. In May, business leaders were told that nearly $1.1 billion in capital investment from announced economic development projects in the Birmingham metro area last year may be an all-time high for the region.

So what were some of the steps taken to make the city grow?

“We came up with the idea of building a baseball stadium and the entertainment district,” Bell said. “Now most people will say, ‘Why are you going to build a baseball stadium when you have potholes? Why are you going to build an entertainment district when you have issues of overgrown lots and dilapidated houses?’ We have to find a way to generate revenue and activity in the city because we don’t have a tax base.”

As the tax base continued to dwindle Bell said he began to look for a place to build the baseball stadium.

“They had been talking about locating it out near Rickwood Field, but that would not have had the impact that we wanted,” he said. “We located it down in the Railroad District because we had so much success with the Railroad Park, and I’m a firm believer that if you got one good thing going, try to put something else on top to make it good as well.”

Investors and others began to notice, the mayor said.

“The business community and investors started saying, ‘Hey, the city is putting up capital to do some things, so let’s start investing.’ We started getting one person stepping up to the plate; the next person stepping up to the plate; we got up to $230 million in the downtown area being invested, and then all of a sudden it just started exploding because people saw it was collaboration, and that’s what people are looking for.”

Bell didn’t limit his pitch to the metro area. He began to meet with investors and corporate leaders in locales far from the Magic City.

“In economic development, there is no substitute for face-to-face, executive-to-executive communication,” said Brian Hilson, CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance. “Because Mayor Bell has a keen understanding of the facts, is skillful at face-to-face meetings and willing to do whatever is necessary to promote Birmingham, including traveling at the BBA’s request to meet with companies, Birmingham has a better opportunity to recruit new jobs and investment.”

A good example is what happened when STERIS considered closing its Birmingham operations, Hilson said.

“At the BBA’s request, Mayor Bell traveled on short notice to Cleveland to meet with the company’s chairman, Walt Rosebrough,” Hilson said. “The mayor was successful in convincing STERIS not only to not close its Birmingham operations, but to expand them. The result was over 100 saved jobs, over 150 additional jobs, and the company’s investment in renovation and expansion of the former U.S. Pipe facility on First Avenue North as STERIS’ new corporate headquarters.”