Kyle Borland

Storyteller and strategist at the intersections of cannabis, branding & communications, justice, and Urbanism.

The Birmingham Renaissance

The Birmingham Renaissance

Originally published on Platform Magazine in October 2013. 

A city is a brand. In the same way a company like Coca-Cola or Apple would market itself, each city has to do the same. For better or for worse, each city has a certain something that defines it. Some cities are lucky and are defined by something positive. New York City is the “City That Never Sleeps.” Los Angeles is Hollywood. Boston is the “Cradle of the Revolution.” In contrast, some cities are not so lucky. One city may be the unluckiest of them all. The world knows this city as “Bombingham.”

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., was a pivotal moment in human history. When four young girls were killed that Sunday morning, shockwaves were sent around the world that persist to this day. It forced America to take action against racial injustice in the South, it inspired people all the around the world to fight for equal rights, and it has been what has defined Birmingham for the past 50 years.

Building the Snowball

Like any negative public perception, it takes motivated people and a well thought out plan to change negative opinions to positive ones. Birmingham is lucky enough that those pieces seem to be finally falling into place.

“Everyone keeps saying that Birmingham is at a tipping point,” said Ford Wiles, chief creative officer of BIG Communications. “I disagree. I say we’ve already tipped.”

Wiles may be right on that account. Birmingham is experiencing a renaissance and shows no signs of slowing down. In just this year alone the city has come to life again. It’s home to the Best Baseball Park in the country in Regions Field, a national award-winning urban park in Railroad Park, an expanding Uptown District and much, much more.

“You have to love yourself before others can love you,” Wiles said. “Birmingham is starting to love itself again. For the first time in 50 years, people want to spend time in the city.”

BIG Communications has had a lot to do with this change of heart. Its staff was responsible for the IN Birmingham campaign for the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau that garnered statewide and national media attention in 2007. What made it so successful? It relied on the residents of Birmingham to show the hidden gems of the city.

“We produced the IN Guide, which was an intensive guidebook to all the best restaurants, bars, stores and things to do in Birmingham,” Wiles said. “We asked the city to submit what they thought was the best things in town to put into the IN Guide. It meant so much more coming from the residents of the city.”

The IN Guide was a huge success. It not only helped attract visitors to the Birmingham area but it also increased business for local companies year round. Just being mentioned in the app was free advertising for the businesses. In addition to that, the IN Guide is now in its 4th generation and in mobile form with thousands of downloads to its credit.

Open for Business

In 2009, the Birmingham Business Alliance was formed. In order to change outward perception, it is vital that the people within a company or organization — or this case a city — are passionate. The BBA was formed to give Birmingham something to be passionate about.

“We knew that economic development was vital to the future of Birmingham,” said David Rickey, Senior VP of communications for the Birmingham Business Alliance. “We wanted to nurture Birmingham’s business community in every aspect.”

The BBA teamed up with — you guessed it — BIG Communications to help get the word out that Birmingham was open for business.

“We wanted people to know that something had changed,” Rickey said. “We wanted the citizens of Birmingham to know that we were here, and we were ready to not only attract new business but help foster the existing business community as well.”

The message was well-received. A little more than a year ago, two organizations, Operation New Birmingham and Main Street Birmingham, formed to create REV Birmingham. REV is an organization focused on the revitalization of Birmingham.

“REV Birmingham wants to be the tip of that spear,” said David Fleming, CEO of REV Birmingham. “We want to lead the way to an even greater Birmingham.

REV focuses on revitalizing the downtown area of Birmingham, growing existing businesses, and attracting new ones. It works hand-in-hand with the Birmingham Business Alliance often because of the overlap of their missions.

“The work that REV Birmingham is doing is phenomenal,” Rickey said. “They’re turning downtown Birmingham into a place that people want to be. The people of Birmingham are excited, and it’s contagious.”

Coming Full Circle

During every rebranding process, there comes a critical point where the decision must be made on how to approach dealing with the past. Do you ignore it and hope it goes away? Do you mention it and then brush it off? Or do you embrace it?

“Birmingham handled the 50-year anniversaries perfectly,” Ford Wiles said. “Our city embraced its history and because of that city can press on even more.”

The Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau approached BIG Communications once again to come up with a campaign that would celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the pivotal moments in civil rights history. BIG came up with the year-long “50 Years Forward” campaign.

“Civil rights history is one of the selling points of the city with the Civil Rights Institute, Heritage Trail, etc.,” Wiles said. “It’s important that the city values that history but also pushes forward for continued progress.”

And progress it has made. This year Birmingham was named an All-American city for the first time in decades and as a top city to visit this year because of the “50 Years Forward” campaign. Historical buildings such as the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, the Parisian and the Pfitiz are being renovated into luxury downtown condos to update the skyline. Regions Field and Railroad Park anchor the downtown area and serve as catalysts for the city’s businesses. UAB is one of the top medical centers in the world. These are all points of interest covered by the New York Times and USA Today.

The nation has taken notice of Birmingham, and the city is delivering. The work of so many from BIG Communications to the Birmingham Business Alliance to the local small business owners has worked to help the city change its image.

“I want us to be known as ‘The Portland of the South’,” Wiles said. “Birmingham has the tools to do anything beyond our wildest imaginations.”

It’s safe to say that “Bombingham” is a thing of the past.

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