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How Birmingham can capitalize on the 'Metropolitan Revolution'

How Birmingham can capitalize on the 'Metropolitan Revolution'

Oct 23, 2015, 12:35pm CDT UPDATED: Oct 23, 2015, 1:30pm CDT


Managing editor- Birmingham Business Journal
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Bruce Katz, an expert on metropolitan policy and author of "The Metropolitan Revolution" says Birmingham has many of the ingredients to succeed in the new innovation-driven economy.

After a day that took him from the University of Alabama at Birmingham to Innovation Depot and around the city center, Katz came away with a positive first impression of Birmingham.

"You can see the good bones that are here that will provide a platform for growth," Katz said.

Katz, of the Brookings Institution, spoke Thursday night at an annual Leadership Birmingham event at the BJCC's new Forum Theater. His trip also included a lecture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Friday and meetings with several community leaders.

His Thursday presentation offered some key lessons and advice about how Birmingham can embrace the metropolitan revolution and fulfill its potential in an economy undergoing a massive shift.

Here are some of the top takeaways from Katz' talk:

Birmingham controls its own destiny

One of the central themes of Katz' book is that metros – not the federal government or states – are the true engines of America's economy.

And he said those government entities aren't going to be responsible for Birmingham's success moving forward. It will be up to the metro's leaders.

"The national government is becoming a health insurance company with an army," he said.

He said the changes at the federal level are squeezing out federal investments in infrastructure, housing and innovation, leaving them to metros. Much of the same is happening at the state level in Alabama.

"The national government is sending a memo to the country: 'By the way, you're in charge of investing in your future,'" Katz said.

He noted how several other metros, such as New York, Los Angeles and Denver, have taken control of their own destinies – often pursuing huge, costly undertakings with little or no federal funding.

For Birmingham to address some of its biggest challenges, Katz said the reality is that the metro's leaders may very well have to solve them on their own.

Collaboration is critical, but it doesn't have to be unanimous

Katz mentioned several times the importance of metros coming together and acting as one unit, rather than a group of competing, self-interested fiefdoms. It's an idea that doesn't necessarily require a shift in government structure, but does require more collaboration, something that has been a well-documented challenge in Birmingham for decades.

With that in mind, he said metros shouldn't waste time in pursuit of an elusive idea or plan that pleases everybody in the region.

"Not everyone has to collaborate. Enough people have to collaborate to get stuff done. I don't believe in perfect," Katz said.

Even in Denver, which has become known for its collaborative approach and offers several lessons for Birmingham, leaders acknowledge that there are ups and downs.

"The bottom line is you gotta do something. If you do something well, then a lot of people who before didn't want to talk to you are suddenly begging you to work with them," he said. "Then, that becomes true collaboration."

Birmingham has some big assets

Katz spoke at length about assets Birmingham has that other metros would be envious of, given the evolution of the economy.

He said having a first-class research university like UAB gives Birmingham a massive edge in the post-recession world, which is focused on innovation and collaboration, particularly between universities and the private sector.

By combining UAB with Innovation Depot, he said the Magic City has the pieces in place to thrive in today's economy.

The fact that both entities are located in the city center is rare, he said.

"Your innovative district is right by the downtown? That's crazy," he said. "Most places would die for that."

Birmingham needs a game-changer

Katz brought up Denver several times during his presentation, noting how the metro avoided becoming a flyover town by boosting collaboration, reducing intrametro competition and throwing its support behind ideas like a first-class light-rail system, which ultimately became a game-changer for the region.

Much of it started with a decision to invest heavily in arts and culture.

"They basically said, 'Let's try to do something together we can all agree on across the region,'" he said. "That was the start of the revival of Denver."

Katz said Birmingham needs to find one game-changing project that can unite the metro and pursue it. He said the metro needs a collaborative win.

"Once you do something together and something positive happens, you want to do the next thing," he said. "It's just human nature."

Don't stop investing in downtown

For Birmingham, Katz said that game-changer may very well be downtown's revitalization.

There are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects underway in downtown Birmingham right now.

If Birmingham wants to thrive in the new economy, Katz said even more needs to happen. He said downtown is critical to the entire metro's future.

"If you want to keep your kids here and attract innovative firms with talented workers, understand what is going on," he said.

He noted that those companies and employees want a vibrant downtown where they can live and work and pursue collaborative innovation.

Katz said that's why the urban core could be metro Birmingham's game-changing project.

"What you can do is build a 21st century downtown, you have the market momentum, you have (Railroad) Park, you have a lot of good bones in a relatively small geography. So, If all you did is that in the next five years, densify, diversity and make it truly authentic, supercharge the innovation around it and spread the benefits of it, so you can pull disadvantaged neighborhoods into it, then do that and don't think about collaborating with everyone to do nothing," he said.