Interview: Tonia Trotter
Photo Credit: Tonia Trotter
Buddy is originally from Selma, Alabama but has called Birmingham home for ten years. With nearly three decades of experience in nonprofit arts and cultural work, Buddy has guided Create Birmingham through its transition from the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham and has been instrumental in bridging the nonprofit and commercial sectors of our city’s creative economy.
Buddy, you came to Birmingham over a decade ago. What continues to connect you to this city, and what excites you about where we are headed?
Alabama and Birmingham, in particular, are such critical and historical pieces of our nation’s fabric. That history and culture seep into our daily lives. In order to move forward we have to acknowledge our past, and by having that conversation, we are able to better ourselves, be the catalysts for a new progressive south, and champion equal rights and justice.
I’m privileged to have a job where I have a balcony seat for the stage where great things are happening. I love knowing the people behind our progress. The attitude of those working in our creative industries inspires me; they see nothing but potential – a different city than their parents and grandparents experienced – and they’re able to marry their work with community engagement.
Birmingham’s authenticity, historic architecture, and entrepreneurial attitude are what makes us special. If we can protect and repurpose what we have, we will be a magnet for people who value that type of community.
Create Birmingham is comprised of so many working parts – from mentoring and helping fund budding creative entrepreneurs through CO.STARTERS to incentivizing the film industry to invest in our community with Film Birmingham – all while keeping a finger on the pulse of our thriving arts and entertainment scene with the online resource Birmingham365. How do you juggle all of that?
Ha ha! Do we? We do our best to make sure our work is integrated. If we don’t have connection our efforts are inorganic, and it’s more difficult to accomplish our goals. Because we’re focused on community impact, we must be selective about which batons we pick up. We have a lean team and we want to be impactful and not spread too thin, so we tend to move slowly and deliberate carefully. We spent a year and a half on pre-recruiting and researching Film Birmingham before we even settled on the name and built the website.
Speaking of Film Birmingham, it has been really exciting to hear about the productions taking place in the city and the buzz around celebrity sightings. Why is this tier of Create Birmingham such an important part of our economic development?
Film creates jobs and not just through the traditional academic pathway. Jobs are disappearing, but American culture is still a huge export. The world loves American pop culture – our music and our movies. So much employment opportunity is connected to this industry. Right now, there is a disconnect between our education system and industry, but we can help facilitate a pipeline so that our local citizens can have a seat at a creative table and be world citizens.
Let’s step away from work for a moment. How do you spend your time away from the office?
Birmingham has such a great food scene, and I love to dine out at any of the downtown spots where I can grab a seat at the counter. I enjoy walking around my neighborhood and taking in the architecture, visiting museums, Regions Field, or seeing a show at The Lyric or Alabama Theater. On the weekends, I focus on slowing my pace. I like to go to Pepper Place or Woodlawn Street Market and stay in to cook and try new recipes, watch Netflix, and work on renovating my loft. I enjoy spending time with family, my colleagues who are my friends, and checking in with and shopping at our CO.STARTERS businesses.
A big portion of what Create Birmingham contributes to our city is through the CO.STARTERS program. What does this initiative mean to you?
In order for Birmingham to become the next “spotlight city,” we have to up our game. Knowledge is power and this creates confidence in founding and running a company. We have such a deep well of creative talent, but we need to help equip our creative entrepreneurs with the business skills they need for success. We have a curriculum that is accessible and not intimidating with great visual appeal and a focus on small business.
Most importantly, we’ve created a community of CO.STARTER alumni – a small business network with a shared vocabulary and passion for helping others. Almost none of our 200 graduates in four years began our program with private or family funding. Our graduates worked multiple jobs, cashed out their 401Ks, and took risks to make their dreams happen. I admire that and am so proud of the superstars who have come out of this and are now being recognized on a national platform.
Who are some of the graduates of CO.STARTERS who are standouts in your opinion? And, who should we be looking out for?
One of our first graduates was Kristen Farmer Hall, the co-owner of The Essential, who will be part of the James Beard Foundation’s efforts to impact policy change for the 2018 Farm Bill. Tanesha Sims-Summers of Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn is another standout who left her corporate banking job to pursue her dream. Women in business still have a harder time getting investors, working with contractors, and being acknowledged for taking risks to push their businesses forward, and these are two to applaud.
Zebbie Carney of Eugene’s Hot Chicken is an incredible example of resourcefulness and ambition. When he started out, he found his customers through the Birmingham Business Journal and sought them out. He went from business to business to establish himself before he was a recognizable name.
Taylor and Paige DeBoer’s Ghost Train Brewery is another business with a great model and talent for recipe development. Kim Lee with Forge Co-working Space is part of the evolution of small business infrastructure. Jacqui Jones of One Degree Marketing is a superstar business woman and definitely one to watch. Chef Dre Foster of The Preservery has done an extraordinary job of articulating a clear vision of her concept restaurant. Josh Haynes of Alloy Thai has built a wonderful reputation with his popup dinners, and Kate Hardy of Square One Goods is bringing retail back downtown and has a real talent for combining merchandising and marketing with a sense of humor.
I could go on and on…