Q: The city of Birmingham recently invested quite a lot in the renovation of an old railyard in the city centre, to turn it into a baseball park. While it has proven popular as a leisure facility, what kind of link can that have to economic development and business?
A: First of all, it’s more that just a leisure activity. It’s an economic driver for an area that in previous times was really a no-man’s land. We invested some $65m to create a baseball stadium, the park which is known as Railroad Park is now being the catalyst for further retail, commercial and residential development in the area. That has changed the image of the downtown area.
I’m a firm believer that when people arrive in a city, they could care less about what the suburban areas look like – if a person is downtown and it’s not progressive with a lot of activity going on, they judge the rest of the community by that. So we set out to change that image, and we’ve been successful with the baseball stadium.
What that also does, it creates a national footprint that will bring business in – we don’t have an NFL team or a professional baseball team, but we do have a minor league baseball team with a lot of energy and a lot of excitement, so it gives us a chance to entertain people who come from other places, and a business-like setting.
From there, we also invite guests who come in from other places. For example, the Japanese are big on baseball. We’ve got a sister city relationship with the city of Hitachi. When the mayor [visited us] we asked him to throw the first pitch…. After the game we were able to take [the visitors] across the street to a local brewery, Good People Brewery. And now the mayor wants to import the beer he found there back to Hitachi. So that’s economic progress!
Q: How will you continue to grow development across downtown Birmingham and attract businesses and residents there?
A: In the past Birmingham was known as a civil rights historical city. That is true, but we’ve changed since then, and often the national media doesn’t [report] that change. So we’ve been able to use the new image that we have to attract national companies.
We have three companies who will be relocating their global headquarters to Birmingham soon – one of them is Steris Corporation, which makes medical sterilisation equipment, as well as a number of other products. It is merging with three or four other companies and it is going to set up its world headquarters in Birmingham. So we feel like we now have the type of atmosphere that is conducive to attract more businesses like this.
Q: How do you overcome the perception gap about Birmingham when you’re promoting it internationally?
A: We meet on a regular basis with the national [newspapers] in New York. We also meet with [ratings agency] Standard & Poor’s, for example, to show it the progress that we’re making in certain areas. If you go back and look at the national [magazines], they’ve been very favourable to Birmingham over the past three or four years.
Also, we were able to win the All American City nomination [in 2013] and people like to see those types of awards. We won a 'best livability' award, a 'best place for young people' award, all types of awards. And [this is reported throughout the whole] country – people read this and it fuels their curiosity.
Then we host an increasing number of conferences and conventions, during which people come to see the city. We also attend a lot of conferences to get the word out. I want to invite people to come to Birmingham to see what it’s all about and to talk about the economic value of doing business in Birmingham as well.
Q: Does southern hospitality help?
A: Sweet tea and grits. Works every time.