By Ashley Whittle Tiedt
Photos by Kelsea Schafer
Ask anyone who’s lived in Mountain Brook for more than a month, and they’ll tell you what a special place it is. Mountain Brook is a small town, nestled in by a major metropolitan area, with rolling hills and beautiful southern charm.
Time moves a little slower, and life is a little happier in Mountain Brook. That’s the way residents like it.
According to the 2020 census, the U.S. Government said there were close to 22,500 people living in the city. Because of where the community is located, City Manager Sam Gaston says it won’t get much bigger.
With all its charm and beauty, it should not come as a surprise that the precious city has once again received the ETC Institute’s “Leading the Way Award.”
Mountain Brook was developed in 1929 by real estate businessman Robert Jemison. It is estimated that more than 92-percent of the city is under tree cover—one of the highest in the nation.
“Mountain Brook has a very wonderful sense of community,” Gaston says. “We’ve got our three original commercial villages. We’ve added more commercial real estate, but we’re still a family-centric community. Robert Jemison’s vision for the city continues to live on.”
The ETC Institute was founded in 1982 as a way to help local government organizations gather data from residents in an effort to move the community forward. Based in Kansas City, Kansas, the company surveys the residents of hundreds of cities throughout the nation.
Mountain Brook has historically performed very well in these surveys. The ETC Institute’s website, etcinstitute.com, reports that the organization has surveyed more than two million people in 1,000 cities since 2010.
Each year the city identifies 2,000 residents to survey.
“The survey is very detailed,” Gaston says. “It asks questions about the responsiveness of city employees. It asks about library services and really any other services you can think of. There are more than 60 questions asked in the survey. It can be completed online in addition to the copy you receive in the mail.”
The ETC Institute sends surveys to the residents, and once the surveys are completed, they compile the data into a summary to give to the city. In the report, 100-percent of respondents said that Mountain Brook was an excellent or a good place to live, and 99-percent said that Mountain Brook is an excellent or good place to raise children.
City officials are quick to say that the reason they continue to receive such high marks is because of the residents, the love and the commitment they feel for their home.
Community members love Mountain Brook for a lot of reasons, but one of the most common is the Mountain Brook Schools system. The U.S. News and World Report recently rated Mountain Brook High School as the second-best school in the state.
“The school system is the main draw,” Gaston says. “Everyone wants their child to be in a good school system, but they also want to live in a safe community. We have a very safe community with a low crime rate.”
Having a safe and inviting community starts with the city employees, and this is where Sam Gaston really shines. He sits down with every new employee and explains what is special about the city and what’s expected of city staff.
“I give them information on our community and the city government here,” he says. “We try to set the standard from day one.”
According to Gaston, it’s the day-to-day employees who make the city shine. They are the ones who make the community so wonderful.
Based on the surveys, the constituents agree with Gaston, too.
“When I talk to these new employees, I let them know how much our residents appreciate them,” Gaston says. “It’s important to tell folks on their first day of work but also to repeatedly tell them that the community they serve also appreciates them and is grateful for the work that they do.”
The ability to enjoy the great outdoors is another draw to the city.
“We’ve got 46 miles of sidewalks and walking trails,” Gaston says. “Within the next year and a half, we plan to have 49 miles. We’ve linked all of our churches, commercial areas, schools and parks. We’re adding more and more, so we’re excited about those. It’s been one of the best things that we’ve done.”
The sidewalks are great for families who love to get out and walk and meet their neighbors. Promoting community involvement was one of the goals of the city’s sidewalk projects.
In a city so close, what does a controversial project in Mountain Brook look like? Street lights.
“A lot of people really like when we put up street lights,” Gaston says. “They feel a sense of safety, and it allows them to stay out a little later in the evening. Others see them as a privacy issue.”
What no one will argue about, however, is the real estate investments the city is making, or the renovation of the athletic complex. While sometimes residents tend to stay in the city’s limits, they also invest in the greater Birmingham area as well.
“The people of Mountain Brook give back,” Gaston says. “They realize they’re part of the greater Birmingham community. Mountain Brook is not an island by itself. We’re very protective of our own community, but we also realize the importance of the whole. Our residents give back, they are engaged and they’re involved in helping others, too.”
As a city government, Mountain Brook will never rest on its laurels.
“We’re dedicated to excellence,” Gaston says. “We are a group of individuals who are striving for excellence and realize that achieving it is a process.”
The city won’t stop working to serve the community, even if they achieve a perfect score from the ETC Institute in all facets. City officials understand that the mission will never be complete.
There is always work to be done, areas of the city to update and new projects to dream up.
“Achieving excellence is a team effort,” Gaston says. “It takes the city government, the residents, the school system, the chamber, the mayor and the city employees. We’re all working together to make this community a place to live and play for generations to come.”
To learn more about the ETC Institute, visit etcinstitute.com.