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A Birmingham renaissance

Birmingham, Alabama, is a city that has never been afraid to reinvent itself. In the mid-1900s, it began easing off its image as an industrial iron and steel city and has since embraced higher education, banking and medicine as a few of its signature industries. A bastion for racial segregation up through the 1960s, Birmingham, which has more recently been led by several black mayors, has boldly invited the world to join the 50th anniversary commemoration of its most tumultuous year, 1963, with a series of events designed to honor its civil rights pioneers.

Several years ago, Birmingham turned its focus to downtown revitalization, acquiring one of its most blighted downtown neighborhoods and claiming it for Railroad Park, an urban park that opened in 2010. The revitalized neighborhood is not only drawing families, school groups and joggers downtown, but also helping to spur downtown living spaces nearby. And five months ago, the city doubled down on those efforts, adding Regions Field right across the street from Railroad Park. The new baseball park brought Birmingham’s longtime minor league team, the Barons, back to the city and to downtown as well.

As a result of those and other initiatives, the Birmingham that groups enjoy today is a contemporary city, one that spreads gracefully up and around the wooded foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and draws acclaim as one of the Southeast’s bright lights. It is home to the publishing offices of Southern Living magazine and headquarters for the Southeastern Conference (SEC), and offers its guests an internationally acclaimed dining scene in trendy Five Points.

Accompanied by Vickie Ashford, director of travel media for the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, I recently revisited Birmingham, stopping to see Railroad Park, its new Uptown District, Regions Field and, by coincidence, Gip’s Place, an unpretentious juke joint in nearby Bessemer that makes a great trophy stop for music-lovers.

When these newer points of interest are melded with traditional group stops like Five Points, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Birmingham Museum of Art, a revitalized visitor experience awaits today’s group travelers.

From Blighted to Beautiful
Railroad Park has been a game-changer in many ways for Birmingham. Built in an old warehouse district downtown, the 19-acre park was envisioned by California urban architect Tom Leader, who presented plans to the city in 2006. Four years later, the park opened.

“Without a river and the opportunity to create a riverwalk like many cities, Leader saw that the railroad had in many ways always been our equivalent in Birmingham,” said Dana McGough of the Davis Denny agency during my visit there. “Iron and steel came through here on rails for decades, and he saw the railroad as integral to designing this park. As a result of his vision, people have come to understand now that the railroad is our river.”

The park has topography that mimics Birmingham’s. Rolling hills, or moguls, give it character and produce a calming effect within the urban context. A stream meanders through the park, and the park’s landscaped trails and bridges make it an urban oasis that is drawing lots of people back downtown.

“This is a community gathering place,” said McGough. “It’s very porous. We’re thrilled about the baseball field next door. We have a wonderful viewing area for Friday night fireworks from here in the park. And the Good People Brewing Company has already opened a taproom down here.”

We briefly caught up with Camille Spratling, the park’s executive director, who told me that Railroad Park is garnering a lot of attention outside Birmingham as well.

“We just beat High Line Park in New York and parks in Portland, Oregon, and Calgary, Alberta, for the 2012 Urban Land Institute Urban Open Space Award,” said Spratling. “If you’ve been to those cities and seen those spaces, you recognize what an achievement that is.”

Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.