Traffic, image important to metro area, business leader says

Published 3:06 pm Wednesday, May 25, 2011

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

The seven-county Birmingham metropolitan area, including Shelby County, needs to work to solidify its community image, and should make a “bigger deal” about its successes, the president of the Birmingham Business Alliance told members of the Greater Shelby Chamber of Commerce during a May 25 luncheon.

During the luncheon, Alliance President Brian Hilson shared his thoughts on the challenges facing the Birmingham area, but urged those in attendance not to focus solely on the region’s problems.

“We are at a starting point in that there is too much attention going to some of the challenges we are facing,” Hilson said, noting the city is facing economic, political and quality of life challenges. “But there are some fantastic things that have happened in the Birmingham area that have been overshadowed.

“Image enhancement starts with how we feel about ourselves,” he added. “We have not made a big enough deal about the successes we have had in the Birmingham area over the past few years.”

Hilson lived in Birmingham before moving to Madison County to serve as the president of the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce for many years, and said he was surprised at the amount of traffic in Birmingham when he moved back.

“I live in Hoover, and when I started commuting to work every day, I was surprised that I had to leave home a half-hour earlier than I did 20 years ago,” Hilson said. “People in the Birmingham region don’t rely on mass transit to a large extent. It’s a quality-of-life issue.

“But we are at a point where our interstates are, I hate to say at the limit, but they are densely populated,” Hilson added.

But Hilson said the metropolitan area’s congested interstates are not entirely negative.

“If road congestion means you’ve got somewhere to go to and from work everyday, it’s a good thing,” Hilson said.

Hilson said his time spent in Huntsville taught him the importance of promoting a positive community image on a regional, county and city basis.

“We need to have several identities. Each county needs their own identity and each city needs their own identity,” Hilson said. “(In Huntsville), we started out a few years ago basically at square one as a small North Alabama town.

“Our goal was to broaden our image,” he added. “As we did that, gradually journalists from across the country started to come to Huntsville. We started getting in national rankings and even moving up in national publications.”

Hilson said he is attempting to recreate Huntsville’s success through the Blueprint Birmingham plan, which was formulated to address the area’s needs, such as economic development, community image and public policies.

“But a plan is a plan. The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “You won’t hear us talking about a plan much longer.

“We have talked about a plan long enough,” Hilson added. “We would rather talk about results.”