Last Friday, I received via email a highly compelling media advisory from the Birmingham Business Alliance, the agency charged with attracting new business and investment to the Birmingham region. I use the term “compelling” — as well, certainly, as the qualifier “highly” — because the contents of the release compelled me to strongly consider picking up my desk chair and hurling it through one of the plate glass windows that front our offices at Weld.
The first of the two paragraphs was innocuous enough, announcing that the BBA would be hosting Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley at a luncheon to be held on Tuesday, Nov. 18. There, it said, our newly reelected governor would “speak on issues affecting the Birmingham region.” Not that I am naïve enough at this point to expect Bentley to have anything meaningful — at least in a positive sense — to say to the average citizen of our community, but it’s always remotely gratifying to have him acknowledge the existence of Alabama’s largest city. Apparently, others were similarly gratified, as the first paragraph of the advisory went on to note that upwards of 500 people were expected to attend what it billed as a “sold-out event.”
So that was well and good. It was the second paragraph that, however briefly, got me thinking about making a statement of my own by turning my chair into a projectile.
After a successful legislative session in 2014 and other accomplishments from this past year, the advisory said, the Governor will provide information on upcoming initiatives that will build upon the foundation of job creation, new industries and a drop in unemployment during his first term.
In the interest of space, I’m going to skip over the BBA’s — and/or Gov. Bentley’s — idea of what constitutes a “successful legislative session.” As for Bentley’s “other accomplishments,” even the BBA didn’t see fit to list any of them, and I personally am confounded as to what they might be, other than winning reelection handily — an “accomplishment” that, given the operationally and ideologically bankrupt state of the Alabama Democratic Party, is roughly equivalent in difficulty to the University of Alabama football team’s task this week against the dreaded Catamounts of Western Carolina University.
No, what really got me going last Friday was the fawning reference to Bentley’s plans to “build upon the foundation” of his first-term record of job creation, economic development and a statewide unemployment rate that is lower than it was when Bentley took office in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession. In consideration of this, I will remind the reader that Alabama ranked 49th among the 50 states in job growth in 2013 — and offer the prediction that things aren’t going to be much better this year.
Actually, I wrote about the reality of the governor’s self-styled status as a job creator back in August, a column in which I highlighted, among other things, the following facts:
- Since Bentley’s inauguration in January 2011, Alabama ranks next-to-last among Southeastern states in the number of months in which private-sector employment has increased.
- Along with Arkansas, Alabama has the lowest rate of job growth in the Southeast over the past four-plus years — 3.9 percent, compared to the regional average of 7.7 percent.
- In addition to being the only state in the Union in which unemployment was higher in mid-2014 than it was in mid-2013, Alabama ranks dead last in the Southeast in the rate at which unemployment has declined over the past three years, and is the only state in the region in which unemployment has declined by less than 20 percent since mid-2011.
Of course, Bentley is a politician, and so has little compunction about prevaricating, and less still about allowing others — in this case, the Birmingham Business Alliance — to do his prevaricating for him. Indeed, although much of what Bentley does — or, as in the case of the estimated 12,000 jobs that would be created through expansion of the state’s Medicaid system under the federal Affordable Care Act, what he doesn’t do — makes me want to do violence to my office windows, it is not really our governor at whom the point of this particular column is aimed.
It’s the BBA.
To illustrate this I offer the following story: Not long ago, I was talking over drinks with a prominent business leader about the BBA’s own record of accomplishment since its creation over five years ago. I was, apparently, in a charitable frame of mind, stating in a tone of mild disappointment that the organization had “yet to hit a home run” in terms of attracting a major employer to Birmingham.
“Home run?” the man exclaimed, regarding me as if he’d sat and watched me take complete and irrevocable leave of my senses before his very eyes. “Hell, I’d settle for a bunt single. They haven’t done anything to speak of. That’s why my company stopped supporting them.”
And now, here comes that word compelled again, as in I am compelled to agree, for the most part, with those sentiments. I do think it’s wrong to say that the BBA hasn’t done anything, but what they have done has meant little to the overall prosperity of Birmingham, or to our prospects for future growth.
I don’t think — in fact, I know — that this is not a sentiment that is confined to a small number of people. The general sentiments I encounter in conversations in all corners of the community are that the BBA is operating on an outdated operational model, that it puts too little focus on strengthening our existing business and industrial base, and that it does not care to stick its neck out on issues — mass transit being first and foremost among them — that would have sustainable impact on Birmingham’s ability to attract the kind of high-quality companies and good-paying jobs that we need to get our community over the hump, economically speaking. Instead, they do things like shill for a governor whose policies are taking Alabama — and Birmingham along with it — backward rather than forward.
Such being the case — and with the fifth anniversary of the BBA’s release of its “Blueprint for Birmingham” having passed earlier this year — it is high time to take an honest look at what the organization has and has not accomplished. That is among the projects Weld will be taking on in the weeks and months just ahead.
In anticipation of that, I will close by saying that I genuinely hope to be proved wrong. I hope that our upcoming review of the Blueprint will find that there is more to the BBA than meets the eye. I hope that the BBA can provide concrete examples of its willingness to take a leadership role in moving Birmingham forward. And I hope that future communications from the BBA will not leave me wanting to break windows, destroy office furniture, or run screaming through the streets.
I hope all of these things. But I am not hopeful that my hopes will be realized.