Spotlight: Jefferson County

Jefferson County, home to Birmingham and several other municipalities, is vital to the state's economic vitality.

Rotary Trail is a half-mile linear park in downtown Birmingham, funded by Birmingham Rotary Club in honor of its centennial. Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Dwayne O’Riley

Jefferson County spans 1,111 square miles in north central Alabama. It is the state’s most populous county with 659,680 people. Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham, is the county seat.

According to the U.S. Census, 33.4% of Jefferson County citizens hold bachelor’s degrees or higher and the median house-hold income sits at $53,901.

Among the largest employers in Jefferson County are the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and its medical center, Regions Financial Corp. and Ascension St. Vincent’s health system, according to the Birmingham Business Alliance. And new companies and jobs are on the way.

According to a 2020 report by the Alabama Department of Commerce, the total number of new and expanding companies in the region announced in 2020 promised to bring 1,211 jobs and a total of $362.2 million in investments for Jefferson County.

And the county is now becoming a major hub for distribution and logistics. Among the announced projects is the new Amazon distribution center that is under construction in Birmingham, promising to bring 180 jobs and representing a $40 million investment. Meanwhile the home improvement company Lowe’s plans to build a distribution center in Bessemer, investing $61 million toward the project and creating 150 new jobs.

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“These new economic developments are the product of a lot of years of work laying the foundation to bring these types of businesses to our county,” says Jefferson County Commission President James Stephens. “We’re working on two different areas, logistics, and now we’re working on manufacturing, and we have areas in the county that are conducive to both,” he says.

U.S. Steel Corp., for example, recently installed a $215 million advanced electric arc furnace at Fairfield Works, and Buffalo Rock announced in 2020 a $75 million expansion in Birmingham. Expansion is also in progress at the Jefferson Metropolitan Industrial Park in McCalla, he says.

“We have projects that are going out there that are exciting manufacturing projects that will represent hundreds of jobs,” says Stephens, “and all these are high paying jobs that will add to the economics of our county and the quality of life for our citizens.”

But in 2020, quality of life in Jefferson County took a big hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, tourism slowed, and many restaurants struggled to stay open.

“The downturn in the travel economy as a result of the COVID pandemic was unprecedented,” says John Oros, president and CEO of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Visitors to the region dropped 35% from 4.5 million in 2019 to just 2.9 million visitors in 2020, he says.

But the industry is slowly bouncing back. In April, the Barber Motorsports Park held its Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama race and the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament and the Regions Tradition Golf Tournament at Greystone also resumed this year.

Business travel for meetings is still down from 2019, but is trending upward, Oros says. Hotel occupancy is also rising, and he predicts that it will reach 62% by the end of the year, after a year at 48%.

But what promises to boost tourism in the years to come are new developments such as the opening of Birmingham’s $200 million, multi-purpose Protective Stadium in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) downtown. Protective Stadium will host large concerts and sporting events and will be the new home of UAB Blazer Football. It also will host the 2022 World Games’ opening and closing ceremonies when the games come to Birmingham in July.

The BJCC is also wrapping up a $125 million renovation on its Legacy Arena, so it’s ready to host NCAA tournament games in 2023 and 2025.

Gail Allyn Short is a Birmingham-based freelance writer for Business Alabama.

For more on Jefferson County, see the links below:

Economic Engines

Health Care

Higher Education

Movers & Shapers

Community Development

Culture & Recreation

This story appears in the October 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.

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