The year was 2002. Dave Adkisson, the then Birmingham Chamber of Commerce President, and I were in St. Louis jogging early one morning when we struck up a conversation with a local runner.
He asked where we were from and why we were visiting St. Louis. We told him we were with a group of about 100 business leaders and politicians from Birmingham who had come to St. Louis to learn about his city’s successes.
His response was one of disbelief. “Why in the world would anyone think there was anything good to learn about St. Louis?”
That was the first hint that there was a self-esteem problem in St. Louis.
Of course when we heard from other speakers over the next two days, we began to understand.
We heard how St. Louis in the early 20th century was the 4th largest city in the U.S. However, when it lost a large Midwestern airport that was scheduled to be built in St. Louis to Chicago (O’Hare), it ultimately fell to 18th.
That story is similar to the Birmingham airport story. Birmingham lost its big potential Southeastern airport to Atlanta. Atlanta now has the busiest airport in the world.
During the next two days we heard about the competing government entities in the St. Louis area. St. Louis is not in St. Louis County and each competes against the other. The metro area is composed of six counties in Missouri, five counties in Illinois, and has to deal with two state governments. To make matters even worse there are 92 municipalities in St. Louis County.
This makes Birmingham’s 37 cities in Jefferson County look relatively simple.
But, in addition, our region has lack of home rule. We have a state legislature who creates our problems and then won’t solve them.
No wonder St. Louis saw its population drop from 850,000 to 350,000 and Birmingham has seen its population fall from 340,000 to 210,000.
Local competing governments are not good for economic development nor are they good for building self-esteem.
Compare St. Louis and Birmingham to two other cities the Chamber visited—Nashville and Charlotte. Both those cities have strong self-confidence and both are economic powerhouses.
Is it just a coincidence that Nashville and Charlotte have unified governments with common regional goals and St. Louis and Birmingham do not?
David Sher’s goal is to create a conversation on how to fix our fragmented and dysfunctional local government.
David Sher is a partner in Buzz12 Content Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).