March 18, 2019

This Ala. city mirrors Hartford's redevelopment ambitions

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Birmingham, Alabama's Regions Field, home of the Southern League Double A Barons, has helped spur residential-commercial development.

Hartford isn't the only U.S. city that has bet big on a minor-league baseball stadium to spur redevelopment.

In 2013, taxpayers in Birmingham, Ala., financed construction of their own $64 million downtown minor-league ballpark, to host the hometown Double-A Southern League's Barons.

The project was looking to leverage development that had already started years earlier. Since 2010, thousands of apartments and condominiums have been built and acres of retail-commercial space developed to accommodate Birmingham's expanding population of young, middle-agers and retirees who have embraced an urban lifestyle.

The stadium's debut added to that momentum with residential and commercial developments around the downtown ballpark that are underway, completed or still planned with a nominal value of $1.3 billion, according to the Birmingham Business Alliance, a regional chamber of commerce.

"It's a good mainstay for our community,'' BBA President and CEO Brian Hilson said of 8,500-seat Regions Field. "It's an amphitheater for downtown, and downtown happens to be the hottest real estate market in the state of Alabama.''

The city of Birmingham's population of 215,000 amid a regional headcount of 1.1 million is slightly larger than Hartford's 124,000 or so residents and nearly even with the Greater Hartford's population.

Where insurance and financial services, manufacturing and health care are Hartford's main economic drivers, Birmingham's once dominant steel-making sector has yielded much of its past influence to finance and education, led by that city's and state's biggest employer — University of Alabama-Birmingham. UAB-Birmingham alone employs some 23,000 and has 20,000 students. Also city based, Regions Financial, parent of the bank that bought the ballpark's naming rights, is the No. 2 employer.

Like Hartford, Birmingham invested public dollars to erect an amenity that economic-development leaders in both cities hoped would lure private investment.

While Birmingham enjoys some of the early fruits of its bet, Hartford is just into the early innings of its quest to commercially redevelop some 32 city properties around Dunkin' Donuts Park.

The best thing Hartford city leaders and economic-development authorities can do to enhance their redevelopment aims around the ballpark, Hilson said, is to include neighborhood residents, organizations and other stakeholders in planning and communicating each other's revitalization ambitions.

"They all need to be at the table,'' he said.

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