Every day I listen as Birmingham residents share their hopes and dreams with me. While their aspirations vary, consistent themes that I hear are economic stability and the desire to start a small business.
No matter where you live, starting your own business is tough. The task can be even more difficult if city licensing, taxes and regulations force entrepreneurs to spend more time navigating City Hall than running their business. During his tenure as mayor, William Bell failed to foster an entrepreneurial culture that values small business and innovation, and Birmingham’s sluggish economic growth confirms that.
I believe local businesses are the backbone of a healthy economy. We must create an environment that enables Birmingham to be an incubator for new ideas and allows the talents of our residents to prosper.
First, we must improve collaboration. The Mayor and the Council should work together on a clear vision for growing our local economy, but this collaboration cannot take place given their strained relationship. And while repairing this relationship is critical, achieving real growth means extending relations regionally with schools, technical and community colleges, and UAB.
Residents should be able to look to their mayor and find a blueprint for local and regional economy. Under the Woodfin Administration, that will be possible.
In my first 100 days as mayor, I will assemble a task force of regional stakeholders and local businesses charged with one goal: making Birmingham the small business capitol of the South.
The task force will explore ways to automate processes to obtain licenses and permits, increase transparency in the procurement process, and repeal burdensome regulations. Most important, the task force will help create a one stop shop, offering free consultative sessions to small business owners on city, county, and state licensing and regulatory requirements.
Secondly, I will work to better align the skills of our workforce with the needs of regional employers by engaging the Birmingham Board of Education. We must ensure every public school graduate is either headed to college or the military, or with a diploma and an Alabama Career Readiness Certificate. This also means working with local technical colleges and regional employers to build school curriculums that reflect the needs of major employers.
I will also earmark funds for the Fred Shuttlesworth Opportunity Scholarship to provide debt-free community college for Birmingham City School graduates. This will allow students to take advantage of courses shaped by the necessity of regional employers, ensuring that students are equipped with skills sought by regional employers.
In addition to ensuring Birmingham youth are prepared for the workforce, I will support local innovators by identifying potential tax incentives to create more shared work spaces and services like the Innovation Depot and Makebhm. My goal is to create a Magic City Innovation District – similar to Atlanta’s Tech Square– where homegrown innovators can share ideas and partner with the broader community.
Lastly, Bell has failed to employ a real economic development plan for small businesses. I would resolve this by implementing a plan, modeled after Chicago’s Small Business Advisory Council, to reduce red tape, expand access to capital, promote innovation and entrepreneurship, and increase support for small businesses.
And while women and minorities are the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs nationally and locally, there is more Birmingham can do to support this trend. For example, Bell has failed to leverage the city’s purchasing power to support minority and women-owned businesses. Groups like Birmingham Construction Industry Authority that were supposed to help minority contractors have inappropriately become sources of cronyism.
Under my leadership, I will certify that city contracts are awarded to firms with active supplier diversity programs. I will also issue an annual Diverse Spend Scorecard disclosing how much the city spends with minority and women-owned businesses.
Topgolf and lavish stadiums are not substitutes for ensuring industrial property sites are shovel ready to be marketed for new developments or for investing in our workforce, nurturing innovators, or growing small businesses. Real leadership requires us to invest in our workforce and support the businesses that keep Birmingham running.
I know we can achieve this if we make real investments in people, and believe in the ingenuity here in Birmingham.