BhamStrong delivers long-term solutions in uncertain times
When Birmingham, Ala, was faced with joblessness, small business difficulties, and limited resources due to COVID-19, the city turned to private partners to help create a unique solution to an unprecedented situation. The result was the COVID-recovery public-private partnership (P3) “BhamStrong.”
In six months, BhamStrong assisted nearly 400 unemployed workers to redeploy their skills; 2,800 small businesses to secure loans and technical assistance; and 8,800 residents with food assistance and health screenings.
In addition to these important, short-term achievements, this P3 illustrates how public-private partnerships born of immediate crises can generate long-term benefits and provide resolution to long-standing issues. BhamStrong serves as a type of living example of how P3s can remain flexible so that their services adapt to the changing times of today and tomorrow.
Understandably, most COVID-recovery P3s focus on the here-and-now, supplying critical temporary resources, such as food, housing and testing. But for BhamStrong, the long-term view was just as crucial as the community’s immediate needs. While BhamStrong services secured the community’s survival the past few months in terms of food assistance and temporary employment, the P3 also considered necessary long-standing solutions to help the community’s long-term recovery.
To address the issue of growing joblessness, BhamStrong focused on retraining workers for future opportunities through the Birmingham Service Corps. The program utilizes unemployed workers’ skills and experiences to help them transition from declining industries to sectors with current, pressing needs. For example, if someone has strong customer service skills from retail positions, with additional education and training, those skills could be redirected towards public health positions.
BhamStrong benefits from a diverse group of partners including Shipt—an online grocery delivery service; The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB); Regions Bank; Alabama Power Foundation; Protective Life Insurance Company; Spire, Inc.—a natural gas distribution company; Altec, Inc.—an equipment and service provider; Pack Health—a digital health coaching start-up; the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham; and the Mike and Gillian Goodrich Foundation. From anchor institutions to start-ups, each BhamStrong partner brings unique resources to the table.
Birmingham, like any other city, has its own brand. Anchor institutions, such as UAB, acknowledge that they must play a critical role in the region’s economic and health recovery; corporations understand how their reputation is associated with the community; and the city’s nonprofits add a vital dimension to shaping the community’s response to adversity.
The public and private connection has long been recognized. However, the pandemic specifically has strengthened residents’ identification with their communities as well as further solidified organizations’ recognition that recovery will be most effective when resources are shared.
Shifting the P3 Mindset
Prior to COVID-19, P3s were building towards a defined end. It was easy to articulate their goals and how they measured success. However, BhamStrong is creating a new type of interpretation with an adaptive system that aligns with these uncertain times. As shifts and changes occur, BhamStrong-type partnerships will have an advantage by adjusting their services accordingly.
In addition, P3s have traditionally been associated with a revenue stream. However, COVID-19 recovery P3s represent a new breed of public-private partnerships and may not necessarily follow the customary revenue model. With the BhamStrong approach, corporate members contribute financially as well as participate. As partners, they went from consumers of talent to co-creators of talent, driven by a sense of community benefit, as opposed to a self-serving mentality.
BhamStrong, and other similar P3s, demonstrate that rallying a community around a common threat helps unite cities and states through a shared narrative.
Building from a Crisis
The question becomes how to apply these lessons moving forward and ensure that the learnings of this crisis don’t go to waste. BhamStrong is a replicable model that offers insight as to how the city might tackle other issues. For example, of the 1.2 million residents in the city, 28 percent are African American, yet only three percent of Birmingham’s businesses are Black-owned. BhamStrong provides a potential approach for the city to address concerns about the disproportionate lack of Black-owned businesses.
While COVID-recovery partnerships are revitalizing P3 models, by focusing on community benefit vs. revenue, and diversifying partnerships, BhamStrong takes it a step further. By prioritizing flexibility and considering longevity, BhamStrong creates a roadmap for making an impact over the long haul. As COVID-recovery P3s continue to mature, the long-lasting changes they generate must be considered as carefully as the short-term problems they alleviate.
Josh Carpenter serves as the Director of Economic Development for the City of Birmingham.
Mark Howard has over 35 years of experience consulting with governments on organizational transformation, innovation and operational efficiency. Most recently, Mark was a Managing Director with Alvarez & Marsal.