Jan 21 2007

At last, a voice in harmony

Birmingham News

By Tom Scarritt


Challenged to sing with one voice, Birmingham's business leaders have chosen a worthy chorus. Now we need to see how long they can preserve the harmony, whether it will be heard in Montgomery, and what we can learn from the process.

Birmingham has been missing opportunities because we cannot work together, Gov. Bob Riley told the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce in November. "There has to be a single voice from Birmingham," he said.

Last week, that voice was heard from the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber's executive committee voted unanimously to make a $125 million bond issue for UAB's Comprehensive Cancer Center its top legislative priority for 2007. The chamber says that action is unprecedented, because the group has never before assigned priorities in its legislative agenda.

That may seem a small distinction to those outside the chamber orbit. It is, however, a step toward the singleness of purpose that Riley, and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, have sought in their efforts to bring state and federal money to our community.

That unity has to include the political leadership as well as the private sector. Supporters of the UAB request note that it has been endorsed by the Jefferson County legislative delegation, the Jefferson County Commission, Birmingham City Council, Mayor Bernard Kincaid and the Jefferson County Mayors Association. We do not know how it ranks on their various priority lists, but at least they are singing in the choir.

The money for UAB is so clearly in everyone's best interest that it should be easy to keep this coalition together. The additional money for recruitment and program growth is expected to create more than 375 new jobs. The university has shown it is very efficient at leveraging the state money it receives to attract more funding and generate more economic activity. At the same time, it will be improving the state of the art in patient care.

UAB's cancer center is a good investment. Alabama Power CEO Charles McCrary, in a landmark speech last year calling for leadership and unity in our community, recognized what a wonderful opportunity UAB provides. "We should be knocking on UAB's door asking how can we capitalize on what you have to offer," McCrary told the Kiwanis Club of Birmingham.

Investing in the kind of cooperation the chamber is leading also can be very good for our community as we move on to tackle more controversial issues, such as mass transit, U.S. 280 traffic and the future of the civic center complex.

Shelby, who has channeled a tremendous amount of federal money into UAB, has been frustrated by our inability to take advantage of mass transit money. Thanks to the senator, $100 million has been authorized for transit; none of it can be spent until we agree on a plan and a mechanism to supply a relatively small local match.

Many more millions can follow, the senator has said, if we can just get our act together.

At the same time, Riley has said over and over that if we want state help to expand our convention center, we must first agree among ourselves on a plan.

Perhaps the UAB funding request will give us the practice we need at singing off the same page, so we can move on to more controversial and challenging arrangements.