Birmingham: Open for Business

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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham -- If there's gonna be a spokesman for a new marketing campaign - perhaps it should be Chris Jackler of Shalmet, Louisiana. He's living in one of 80 FEMA trailers set up at Oak Mountain State Park on the southern fringe of Birmingham.

"Birmingham's a beautiful city, everyone's been really nice here. I wouldn't mind stayin' for a while! I mean if anybody's an evacuee from the hurricane I'd say come here because it's the most amazing place."

That's just what Birmingham City Councilwoman Carole Smitherman wants to hear.

"We rolled out our southern hospitality initially. We did all we could to invite people in, take them into our homes. Did whatever we could to make them comfortable."

Sounds altruistic, but there's a bottom line too. Birmingham ranks sixth in the U.S. for the number of people leaving the city proper. While the suburbs have flourished, Smitherman says the urban core is crumbling.

"It certainly affects our tax base and it also affects our education base as well because our dollars are programmed based on the number of student that we have enrolled in our schools. "

Some school districts have struggled to absorb displaced students. Still, the city has rolled out the welcome mat and is leaving it there. Smitherman wants to launch a nationwide marketing campaign to convince hurricane evacuees to choose Birmingham as their new home. Her plan includes tax breaks for displaced businesspeople willing to set up shop here.

Down at the state park 20-year-old Courtney Cook has already made up her mind. After months of job-hunting in her native St. Bernard, Louisiana, she got hired to sell clothes at a local mall here. She also plans to continue her education.

"I'm thinking about going back to school in January. I'm going for paralegal. I only have like a year and a half left. I love it. I don't want to leave. I love it."

Economists caution that growth doesn't always equal prosperity. Birmingham wants to make sure it lures evacuees like Cook who'll earn good salaries and spend money locally, instead of being a drain on the system. Councilwoman Smitherman also recognizes that the marketing campaign itself has to be carefully crafted.

"We certainly don't want to appear as if we are trying to take advantage of a bad situation. But on the other hand we do know the challenges that business and individuals face right now in terms of where do I go, what do I do? We just offer ourselves as a wonderful alternative."

-- Tanya Ott, October 13, 2005