Strolling the streets of downtown Birmingham at sunset on a Saturday evening, one encounters all the requisite ingredients of hipsterification: city bikes, buzzy bars serving craft cocktails, washed-brick buildings turned into loft apartments and start-up offices, food trucks, pop-up stalls and trendy restaurants, all filled with the ambient bustle of people out and about enjoying these offerings. The latter alone is a stark change from just five to 10 years ago, when only brave souls ventured into the city centre after dark.
To go with its new vibe, this formerly shabby city – the largest city and commercial capital of the southern US state of Alabama – has something else that might have been unthinkable not so long ago: a young, hipster mayor.
Defeating an incumbent three decades his senior in 2017 to become Birmingham’s youngest mayor in more than a century, at age 36, Randall Woodfin greets visitors to City Hall wearing a fitted blazer, pocket square, open-collar shirt and trainers along with an earnest but coolly casual demeanour. A progressive in a deeply conservative state, he starts off by decrying the signing by the governor just days earlier of one of the country’s most restrictive laws on abortion, an issue that polarises the US and attracts negative international attention.
“What I found is that everybody agrees on economic development. There are certain policies that I don’t shy away from [criticising] but I govern as a non-partisan mayor. When I speak on behalf of the residents and business owners I serve, it’s all about how do I improve the quality of life and make it better for the people who live here,” he says. ‘I have to engage with a super majority in [state capital] Montgomery. We talk about the things we agree with and move towards economic development.”
Nonetheless, he is conscious of the difficulties in presenting a more modern face to the world for a city known mostly for its ugly history of civil rights conflicts and where political corruption has typically been rife.
“You can never discount the intangible [impact] of image and reputation. So what we’ve tried to do is hold ourselves out as a southern city with southern charm and hospitality but we’re open for business. We know how to engage industry and welcome them with open arms and make sure they can be successful here. The ecosystem we’ve wanted to create around small business growth, around entrepreneurship and around start-ups and big companies was all intentional,” he says.
Among the local sectors gaining traction in Birmingham is life sciences and medical research. The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), located downtown, received about $585m in research funding in 2018 and was ranked number 10 worldwide in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018 for universities under 50 years old. The university’s Hugh Kaul Personalized Medicine Institute is attracting not only research dollars but also top talent: director Dr Matthew Might, who was president Barack Obama’s key strategist for personalised medicine, was poached from Harvard University to come to Birmingham and launch the institute.
More than image, many things are changing rapidly on the ground in Birmingham, to the benefit of its investment appeal. On this front, the mayor is pleased to hear that his city has been ranked by fDi Magazine among its American Cities of the Future 2019/20, receiving a ninth-placed designation overall among mid-sized cities and sitting within the top 10 in the Business Friendliness, Connectivity, Human Capital and Lifestyle categories.
“What makes Birmingham a city of the future is the quality of life. Our cost of living is great. The assets we have as a city are fantastic and we are well connected. The city has three major rail lines and four major interstates, an inland port and we are expanding the airport – all of this makes us a logistics hub,” says Mr Woodfin. “When you look at where we are centrally located within the south-east, in relation to moving goods and moving commerce, we are positioned to be very attractive to any new investments and any new growth.”