Friday, February 11, 2011

America’s Debt and Its Impact on Our Future

How much do any of us really know about our nation’s debt? We hear news stories about it constantly. But do we as everyday Americans really understand our debt situation? Should we be concerned, worried, terrified?
In order to cut through the sound bites and the sky is falling predictions, I googled the issue seeking to get a basic understanding of the topic. Of the many websites / stories on the topic, one in particular provided me the basics of the issues. Did you know?
• The current US debt is over $14 trillion dollars of which two-thirds is owed to people, businesses, and foreign governments who have purchased treasury bills, notes, and bonds.
• The remaining one-third is owed to the government and held as Government Account Securities – funds we have borrowed from Social Security and other trusts funds.
• The U.S. debt is the largest in the world. From 2000-2007, our debt grew by 50% ballooning from $6 to $9 trillion. Add an additional $700 billion bailout program in late 2008, and we are now over $10 trillion.
• The US debt is currently about 95% of GDP up from only 51% in 1988.
• The interest owed on our debt was $414 billion in FY 2010. The interest is the 5th largest federal budget line item following defense and security ($890 billion), Social Security ($730 billion), and Medicare ($490 Billion).
The interesting facts could go on forever. But hopefully these few will suffice in framing the issue in order to discuss its impact.
Again, as we reflect on these facts, are we concerned, worried, or terrified? Or do we care? Of course we care. But if the majority of Americans really were concerned, how did we get here? How did our elected officials “spend” us into this situation? How did we become so distracted or disillusioned into thinking that spending more than we have is ok?
Remember the budget surpluses that VP Gore and Gov. Bush discussed in the 2000 presidential campaign. Seriously … just 10 years ago, the two men vying to become our nation’s 43rd President, debated what they would do with the surplus that occurred from a few good years of the federal government spending less than it took in. Believe it or not, they both agreed that the “surplus” should be used to pay down the debt, shore up Social Security, and to give back the rest as credits or tax cuts. Remember that when these debates were occurring, the total US debt was around $5.6 trillion.
Gov. Bush eventually became President. He pushed hard for tax cuts and got them. The nation entered into a recession, terrorists attacked us in September of 2001, and almost immediately we became entangled in two wars. Spending soared to unprecedented levels and by the time President Obama was sworn in our debt is a whopping $10 trillion. Fast forward two years, and our debt is now over $14 trillion.
Back in 2000, VP Gore and Gov. Bush also agreed that by the time either was sworn in as President, the accumulated “surplus” would equal approximately $4.6 trillion. As Larry the Cable would say, “Can you believe that”? The debt was approximately $5.6 trillion and the surplus from the most recent annual budgets was approximately $4.6 trillion.
Where would we be today if President Bush would have used the entire “surplus” to pay down our nation’s debt? Imagine starting your presidency off on the right foot and reducing the debt of the country you serve from $5 trillion to $1 trillion. For those who want to play devil’s advocate, the tragedy of 9/11 and the recession, and the wars of the Bush years would have still required deficit spending. You are correct in assuming that some of the spending of the Bush Presidency would have been necessary. But in the end, our national debt would be about $5 trillion less today if he had used the $4.6 trillion in surplus to pay down our debt in 2000. In reality, he and Congress spent the $4.6 trillion and borrowed another $4 trillion.
Our national debt dilemma is no one person or President’s fault (Bush $8 trillion / Obama $4 trillion). Many are to blame for what ails us. But if history has taught us anything, it is that tough times are reoccurring. We will have national disasters, wars / military conflicts, recessions, etc. It is time we do the prudent and get our financial house in order, in order to restore America’s strength.
It is incumbent that both parties and the President roll up their sleeves and get federal spending under control both in the short-term and long-term.

Have you been to Realville?

Of course you have. It is where most of us live. Our actual address may include an actual name of a place, but we all live in Realville. Thanks to the administration and staff at Dalton High School, all Dalton High freshmen were able to spend a little time in Realville last week. The experience was paid for by the Dalton Education Foundation and was staffed by volunteers from all walks of life.
Realville is the fictitious town of the Reality Check program that enables students to get a little taste of the real world. Prior to the experience, teachers assigned the students with different real-life scenarios. The students were assigned all varieties of occupations, their educational qualifications, whether they were married or single, had children or no children, or were single parents. Given the education and occupation assigned, the students were given payroll information – both gross and net after taxes.
Armed with real world and very realistic information, the students spent the next 40 minutes visiting different stations that gave the students choices to consider like housing, transportation, insurance, groceries, or the availability of part-time jobs. For example, I might have been assigned the scenario of being a single parent with a six-month old, who dropped out of high school, was employed as a video store clerk, and brought home $1200 per month.
Armed with my life circumstances and my $1200, I would first visit the housing station only to realize that my least expensive housing option was a $500 per month one-bedroom apartment. My transportation options included everything from a $60 bus pass to a $500 per month Honda. My grocery bill for two came to $425 per month. And last but not least, childcare for my six-month old would cost me $425 per month. Even if I chose the bus for transportation, I have already allocated my $1200 in just four important and necessary expenses and need an additional $210 to break even.
A friend of mine and volunteer at one of the stations summed up the experience through the words of two different students, the first student simply said to herself after looking over her checkbook register, “this sucks” (my apologizes for the use of a crude expression). The second young man was comparing his sheet with his buddies and exclaimed – why do you make so much more money than I do?
This real-world experience gave these young and impressionable students a chance to “play” life in safe mode. They were able to understand the realities that compensation correlates with educational attainment and job choice. They were able to taste life, see life conditions in a safe and non-judgmental application, while also benefiting from the knowledge that these experiences provided.
My station was the part-time job station. A student could come to me and get a part-time job working at the grocery store or delivering pizza at night. They would look at the board of options; nonchalantly choose to deliver pizzas five nights a week for an extra $900 per month. I would then challenge them by asking – who will keep your six-month old while you deliver the pizzas? When will you spend time with your child? How can you deliver pizzas using a bus pass?
Soon after moving to Dalton, I had the pleasure of working on the Education is Essential Committee through the Chamber. The EIE committee created a similar program to Reality Check call Big Bucks. Some of you may remember the program or were volunteers in classrooms that utilized the program. Although the Big Bucks program was similar in concept, the Reality Check program is a much more interactive and informative program.
Jean Lowery, the Executive Director of the Dalton Education Foundation, told me after the experience that the Chattanooga community is using an even more comprehensive program of which Reality Check is just one component. The more comprehensive approach is a collaborative between the Chattanooga Chamber, Hamilton County Schools, Chattanooga State College, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. After seeing the experience firsthand, I whole-heartedly endorse our community researching what Chattanooga is doing and see if we can adopt it here.
The Greater Dalton Chamber applauds Dalton High School, the Dalton Education Foundation, and the volunteers who made a Friday very worthwhile in the lives of students. We look forward to working with our education stakeholders in implementing programs like Reality Check for the benefit of our students.

The Difference a Teacher Makes

Last week our community lost one of its finest. Although I did not personally know Demera Robinson, I know her family. And more importantly, I have known many Ms. Robinsons throughout my life. I had teachers just like her. Those that taught more than the textbook material. Those that took a real interest in me as a person. After reading just a few of the comments from Dalton High School students, it was obvious that Ms. Robinson was just that kind of teacher.
It is times like these that we should stop and reflect on what is really important in life. As a citizen, father, community leader, and economic developer, I would argue that all things that build our community or positively affect our community are important. At the national level, things like enforcing the rule of law, protecting our country against foreign and domestic enemies, and managing our fiscal affairs are all important priorities for our national leaders to focus on.
At the local and state level, the priorities should be very basic – public safety, good schools / educational opportunities, good roads and transportation infrastructure, clean water and public wastewater treatment, and amenities for quality of life. In this day and time, basic infrastructure should be a given. Clean water and good roads are expected by taxpayers.
The Great Recession that we all are still recovering from has appropriately put a magnifying glass on the spending by our various government entities. Many political pundits are proclaiming that the Republican takeover of the US House and many state legislatures can be directly attributed to the public’s ire against runaway spending.
So what taxes are legitimate? How should our elected officials prioritize the taxes they enact and the spending they appropriate? These are serious questions that need to be debated in a bi-partisan and adult manner. We need real leaders and not politicians given the severity of the issues facing our nation, our state, and our local communities.
Over the last three years our state officials have dealt with the effects of declining revenues by cutting the state’s budget across the board. Appropriations for education have not been spared. These cuts, on top of declining digest values that determine local funding, have dealt a double-whammy to those charged with educating our children.
I, like most, do not want to pay any more in taxes than necessary. But what is necessary? I think most reasonable people want good, if not great schools. We want good roads. We want law enforcement and courts to keep us safe. But spending by our federal government on projects like studying turtle migration has clouded our view on what is important and necessary.
In the recent report from The 2010 Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians, good comparative data was included that illustrates the tax burden for Georgians. According to the report, Georgia ranks 39th among states in per capita taxes (State and Local combined). In state taxes alone, Georgia ranks 45th nationally. Based on 2010 numbers, Georgia is now 49th in per capita revenue followed only by SC. According to the report, “this data suggests that, relative to other states, state taxes in Georgia are very low while local taxes are approximately average.”
What are our priorities? Are the taxes that are collected and spent a reflection of those priorities? Should our officials take a new approach of re-thinking our priorities and aligning the appropriate spending on the things that matter most?
Can we afford to cut more teacher positions? What are the short-term and long-term effects of larger classrooms? I don’t pretend that these are easy questions or simple problems. But I think most would support the necessary taxes targeted at funding our highest-leveraged priorities.
Over the holidays, I watched the fictional movie Mr. Hollands Opus. The movie ends with a former student (who eventually became Governor) saying, "Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn't rich and he isn't famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he's achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”
I dedicate this column to Demera Robinson and every teacher who is making a difference in the lives of our children. Education is not an expense – it is an investment!

2011 ???

Can you believe another year has come and gone? Can it really be 2011? At dinner last night, the subject of Y2K came up. Can you believe it has been 10 years since that futile scare? Are you feeling optimistic or cautious about 2011? How would you describe your outlook for the New Year for yourself, your family, your community, our state, and our nation? These are tough questions and the answers will vary from one person to another.

In thinking about the New Year, I have to admit my thoughts were vague at best. I even went online and researched everything from the Chinese calendar (year of the Rabbit by the way) to the Farmer’s Almanac. My search also found a few prognosticators ranging from a religious group for such, a fairly thorough economic forecast from Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary for President Clinton and a Professor, and the usual postings from those known simply as bloggers.
Surprisingly, there were very few credible or authoritative search results offering bona fide forecasts / predictions. I say surprising because in the day of the media talking head and expert “panels”, one would think that we have more answers than we have questions. Those of us that live in the real world though know that the future is as unpredictable as an Oklahoma tornado.
I was intrigued by some of the predictions made by Professor Reich. “CEOs and stockholders will prosper in the globalizing economy, but the American labor force will continue to struggle, as America's two economies diverge further,” predicts Reich. Professor Reich describes two economies within the US Economy this way, “ the Big Money economy and the Average Working Family economy — will continue to diverge. Corporate profits will continue to rise, as will the stock market. But typical wages will go nowhere, joblessness will remain high, the ranks of the long-term unemployed will continue to rise, the housing recovery will remain stalled, and consumer confidence will sag.”
Zachary Roth blogging on THE LOOKOUT describes 2011 this way – “As we enter 2011, we're at an unusual economic moment. Everywhere you look, there are hopeful signs that the economy is finally turning around. But many Americans just aren't feeling it yet in their daily lives -- and might not be for a while. Today's news brings that contradiction home more strongly than ever.
Who really knows what 2011 will hold for any of us? We use the data available to us to make the best decisions possible producing the most desired outcomes. Professor Reich goes on to make the case that Wall Street will prosper at the expense of main street America because of the cold-hearted greed that international markets offer at the expense of the American citizen / consumer. Although I agree with the Professor’s prognostications, I do not agree with the reasoning behind his predictions.
I would argue that Multinational corporations and small businesses alike will invest and operate in any market that offers a good return on investment. Given the growth rates and wealth creation that is occurring in countries like China and India, it is only natural that those who can capitalize on these markets will.
And the reasons these same organizations are not investing at the same robust levels here in the US as they are internationally is simple economics. The same dollar invested in a minimally bureaucratic, low wage, low taxed economy yields a much higher return than a country like the US that has more bureaucracy, higher wages, and higher taxes. Last time I checked, the US had the highest corporate income tax in the world except for Japan.
So as the 112th US Congress convenes this week and state legislatures begin their sessions all across the country, the jury is still out as to what policies will be enacted, changed, or repealed that will affect our country’s ability to compete. Although many promises were made in the recent election cycle, it is now time to govern. The US and the state of Georgia have tremendous issues to debate and a responsibility to enact laws / policies that will increase our ability to compete.
Thankfully we are prepared locally to compete (at least against other US communities). Our local governments have low to average tax rates. Because of Grow Greater Dalton and our local governments, we have the necessary resources to market our community to those looking to expand or invest here for the first time. We are in a terrific location that manufacturers can reach over 50% of the US population within one day’s drive from Dalton. And we have tremendous transportation and utility infrastructure.
Although many are forecasting continued instability within the housing market, prolonged high unemployment, and flat to declining wage rates, most also agree we have turned the corner. So 2011 may not be as bad as 2008 or 2009, but it is too early to declare we are out of the storm.
As my blessings continue to be greater than my needs, I am thankful to be an American, a Georgian, and a proud member of the Greater Dalton community! From all of us at the Chamber of Commerce, we wish each of you a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Let there be peace!

North Korea attacks South Korean island … Tourist attacked in Israel … President accuses Republicans of taking hostages in tax debate … Republicans accuse Democrats of promoting socialist agenda … Mexican drug lords extend violence across US border …
If newspaper headlines, forum comments, and soundbytes espoused by the various TV talking heads were all we had to go by, peace would be the last descriptive we would use to describe the world as we know it. But in the book of Isaiah the word proclaimed centuries ago that “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. “
What would the world be like if each of us sought peace? Remember the words of the song Let there be Peace on Earth?
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

Just think what our world might be like if the peace that many of us feel and project became contagious. And as the song says, that peace began with each of us?

Consider the recent debate on the Bush tax cuts… could a win-win have been reached instead of a compromise? Could our elected officials have debated and worked through the issue without demonizing each other. Not only do I think so, I feel a win-win was possible and would have led to a better tax package and took at least a baby step toward fiscal responsibility.

I think most felt the tax cuts being kept in place for over 95% of Americans were necessary and responsible as we continue to try to climb out of the current economic abyss. I also think most agree that spending at the federal level is out of control. So a possible win-win could have been a modest increase for the top two percent of wage earners while also reducing spending by at least the same amount.
It is a far stretch to say that any tax increase for the top-earners will put the brakes on growth and investment. But given the fiscal malpractice of our Congress and Presidents (pick any of them over the last 20-30 years), it is good politics to blame the other guy and demonize one another rather than rolling up your sleeves and working it out.

A win-win option is possible if mutual respect and mutual benefit are desired. In Stephen Covey’s landmark work on human effectiveness, seeking a win-win solution produces the highest level of benefit. Why then do we see so much evidence of the opposite – win/lose, lose/win, lose/lose, and compromise? In the political world compromise is considered success. If we could somehow get back to some level of civility where mutual respect and mutual benefit could exist, maybe our country would be in better shape.

Internationally we do not seem much better off. After thousands of years of war and fighting, conflict still reigns. North Korea imprisons its people through totalitarian rule yet seeks aid from the rest of the world through intimidation. In the Middle East, peace not only is nonexistent, the mere premise is thought irrational by the radical.

Rarely a day goes by that news reports of abuse, violence, assault, rape, and even murder are reported. Even the simple reading of the forum in our local paper can quickly wipe the smile off of your face. One will rarely be at peace after reading the criticisms and complaints of even a few.

So as I enter this Christmas season wishing for peace I will be mindful of the words in the song – peace was meant to be, it begins with me, and it occurs with God as our Father! Although today we are not at peace, one day the world will be at peace!

Wishing all a blessed and Merry Christmas!

My Christmas List

I have previously mentioned in past columns that I love this time of year. Christmas is definitely my favorite season and holiday. I start listening to Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. So, I thought it appropriate to share my Christmas list so that all who read this might contribute to bringing some or all of it to fruition.

Given this Christmas season is much like the last couple, my list does not include material things or things that possess tremendous monetary value. My list does include wishes and aspirations that would definitely make my everyday life better, but more importantly the wishes would drastically improve the collective world that we all live in.

Although I wish for world peace, I know that in reality the world has never been peaceful. As long as we humans occupy this earthly planet with all of our greedy, envious, and me first attitudes, world peace will be elusive. So my Christmas wish is that each of us would do all within our powers to create peace where we live, work, and play. Each of us has tremendous opportunities daily to quiet the noise and to calm the turmoil – but we must choose to do so.

Although I wish for and pray for every man, woman, and child to have adequate food to eat, I know that many are hungry. Through the efforts of so many in our community like Providence ministries, the Salvation Army, the local network of churches, and many, many more - those needing food will receive a meal or two. My Christmas wish is that we be mindful that the need exists, and that we will do all we can to assist those who feed our neighbors.

Although I wish for leadership, vision, and good governance from our elected officials, they (like us) are mere human. Most work diligently for the good of all of us. Many work to promote their own agenda or their parties agenda without regard to what is beneficial to those they govern. Their agenda is put ahead of the people’s agenda. They act unethically, profit from their positions, and in some cases actually break the law.

My Christmas list is that those in office spend this magical and special time of year reflecting on why they ran for office in the first place. I would ask that they step back evaluate their deliberations, their actions, and their votes during the past year, and truly grade themselves based on how they benefitted the jurisdiction that elected them. At the end of the day did their decisions improve the lives of those they represent?

And as it relates to those in public office, I also wish that each would serve honorably. Notice I did not say or ask that they serve without mistake or that they always make the right decisions. Whether a decision is right or wrong is more often than not subjective. But in my opinion, evaluating one’s behavior as being honorable or not is never subjective.

Next month, we begin another legislative session. This session brings many new players to the process – a new Governor, a one-year at the helm Speaker of the House and one of the largest freshmen classes of representatives and senators in recent history. Our state is in dire need of visionary, compassionate, and honorable leadership. As our state continues trying to do more (or the same) with less, true leadership is paramount. My Christmas wish is that Governor-Elect Deal, Lt. Gov. Cagle, and Speaker Ralston will provide this needed leadership.

At the national level, our leaders face an even more daunting task than our state leaders do. Although I wish the federal government had never usurped powers not given to it by our constitution, that train has left the station. The practice of deficit spending has reached epidemic proportions that threaten to bankrupt our once mighty nation. Imagine being the President and having to listen to other world leaders lecture you on getting your financial house in order. My Christmas wish is that the recent deficit reduction plan not be totally ignored but it becomes the basis for renewed dialogue about the future of our great nation.

In spite of all that is not right with our community, our state, or our nation, I am so grateful that I live where I live. The greater Dalton community has become my family’s home. We are Georgians and we are Americans. Our blessings outweigh our short-comings. And we treat each other as neighbors not strangers. So even in these difficult times I can celebrate because of the Hope this season brings. And as long as any of my neighbors is need, my purpose is known.

From my family to yours, I wish all a blessed and Merry Christmas!

The US Needs Mass Transit

Last week the editorial board of the Daily Citizen printed their editorial for the day titled “Shut-Down High-Speed Rail Study.” Rarely will an editorial get much a reaction out of me, but this one really hit a nerve. I also rarely support massive federal projects. But I do believe in high-speed rail as the only form of mass transit that will get Americans out of their cars.

My objections to the editorial are many but I will only highlight a few and I will do so with facts that will support my arguments. With all due respect to our journalism educated editorial team, very little journalism went into the writing of this editorial.

In the first paragraph, the column speaks of no one being willing to speak up against the project. I have attended numerous small and large group meetings that were advertised profusely. A number of the Daily Citizen reporters attended many of these presentations given by the project team working on the study. In most of these meetings, the attendees seemed genuinely interested in the possibilities that high-speed rail could deliver. In only one meeting did I hear of one possible objector who seemed only concerned with how the project would impact his property.

The next objection raised in the editorial speaks to the fact that a cost-benefit analysis has not been completed that illustrates how a Chattanooga to Atlanta line would benefit Georgia. Although I am not able to provide detail information to counter this claim, I have seen information that illustrates that ridership and revenue projections from potential riders has been included in the studies thus far.

I would ask this question – can you measure the positive impact of removing 10, 15, or even 20 percent of the single passenger vehicles traveling from Chattanooga to Atlanta from the congestion of I-75? I think so. I traveled through the heart of downtown Atlanta a few Sundays ago at approximately 6pm returning from South Georgia. I felt like a NASCAR driver. All lanes were bumper to bumper moving at 55-65 mph. To my knowledge there was not any construction nor accidents – just more traffic than the road capacity could handle. This was on a Sunday!

The road network in and around Atlanta is overloaded. There is not any remaining capacity and (in my humble opinion) minimal options for capacity expansion. Only through investments in and the expansion of mass transit options will the transportation capacity of the Atlanta region improve.

Another reference by the editorial says millions of dollars have been spent studying this corridor project. When I asked if they knew the real number – the answer was no. Again, I would understand a letter to the editor from a citizen not knowing the facts, but the editorial board comprised of journalist?

In fact, the project thus far has cost approximately $12 million dollars. Most of which has come from the US Federal Highway Administration using federal highway funds that we all pay for maintaining and improving our transportation system. The local match has come from the City of Chattanooga, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the Cumberland Improvement District (special tax district in Cobb County).

Georgia has invested very little on this project for two reasons. First, until recently our GDOT could not spend money on any transportation mode except roads and bridges. And second, the elected leadership of our state was not supportive except for Senator Jeff Mullis and Senator Doug Stoner. Just recently Georgia changed GDOTs mission that now allows them to study, maintain, and improve all of Georgia’s Transportation system.

When / if this project gets built, the estimated cost is projected to be between $5 Billion and $10 Billion. Unless you work for the federal government or are an elected federal official, that is a lot of money. The studies so far have cost approximately $12 million. And let’s say $38 million more will be required in final studies / design work. If you spend $50 million on a project that will be built at a cost of $10 billion, that is a 1 to 200 ratio or one-half of one percent.

To put this in prospective, typical architectural costs for a building can run 5-10% of the cost of the building. Or consider the recent admission by the federal government that the “virtual fence” on the border with Mexico is not working and it has already cost us $50 billion. The 5th runway at the Atlanta airport reportedly cost $5 billion.

Again, with all due respect for the editorial board of the Daily Citizen, I respectfully disagree with their position and premise. If we are ever going to reduce our country’s addiction to oil, we have to think and act differently. In one change of habit, one change of transportation mode, we bolster our efforts to make US companies more profitable while simultaneously reducing the money we send to our enemies.

A High-Speed MAGLEV train using a steel and concrete girder system can be built right here creating jobs. It is powered by electricity that Georgia Power and TVA can supply from nuclear energy through their power distribution entities and our own Dalton Utilities. And some percentage of cars will be removed off the I-75 corridor that is at or above capacity. I see this as an economic development, environmental stewardship, and national security issue.

America's New Economic Reality

By the time you read this, the results of the 2010 political season will be known – at least in most cases. And I think the “experts” will have successfully predicted a major change in the political make-up of our federal government and in many state races as well. The House will have switched majorities from the Democrats to the Republicans. And although the Senate balance shifted toward the Republicans, they were unsuccessful in capturing the majority. What will these changes mean?

Given we are in the middle of a very protracted “jobless” recovery, and given that most economic indicators continue to show tremendous softness, I think America will have spoken through the exercise of their vote that they are extraordinarily dissatisfied with business or politics as usual. Some have even described the sentiment of the American voter as angry. Regardless of what you call it, once again a major shift in political direction has occurred in a very short span of time. Why?

When there have been similar economic conditions going into a campaign, the usual answer is – it’s the economy stupid. And although the slow to no recovery is probably a major driving factor, I would argue that something else is occurring. A much broader and more profound change seems underfoot. More on that later…

In 1994, the republicans took over just two years after President Clinton won his first term. He like our current President proceeded to move a very aggressive liberal agenda through the Congress. The voters responded by electing the “Contract with America” republicans who pulled the agenda back to the center. Surprisingly President Clinton working with a republican congress actually made a few accomplishments.

Fast-forward to 2000, President Bush is elected and the republicans were in full control of the federal government. Just eight years ago, economic forecasts touted robust growth and even forecasted budget surpluses at the federal level. The republicans while controlling the reins of the federal government had the opportunity of a lifetime. They could reduce the size of government, reduce spending, and move the pendulum of power back to the states and away from Washington. Did they?

Of course not… they spent money as feverishly and aggressively as their democratic brethren. President Bush never vetoed a spending bill. Increasing the federal power enjoyed by Senators and Representatives was just as intoxicating to republicans as it was to democrats.

So, I feel that this election is different. It is my opinion that the rise of the tea party and general independent voter is a direct result of voter dissatisfaction with both national parties.

If we want America to return to the prominence we once enjoyed, continuing the failed policies of the last 20 years is not an option. Just as most Americans have down-sized and cut back, government at all levels must do more with less. Entitlement programs (that should have been minimal at best) must be dealt with. Those we elect will have to make hard choices.

One of the scarier political ads that I saw over the last few weeks was not the mud-slinging typical ads that most candidates have paid to air. The scariest to me was the Chinese leader speaking to an auditorium full of young Chinese citizens and basically saying that by owning our debt, they in effect own us. I know it is dramatic and exaggerated, but in fact we are woefully indebted to China.

The recent “Great Recession” has humbled most of us. Even if we kept our jobs, we know many friends, neighbors, and even family who have lost theirs. I truly think most Americans have reset their individual economic baseline to one that is much more conservative (at least fiscally) and they now expect the same from their elected officials.

The Democrats and the Republicans need to understand that business as usual will not be accepted anymore. If you are found to be unethical, you will be held accountable. If you play political games instead of leading, you will be voted out. Although the republicans and democrats alike have tried to paint the Tea Party and its members as extremists, the voting public (especially the true independent) appreciate that their existence and growing prominence have put accountability back into the process.

So our new economic reality will have lasting effects if we truly want change for the better - not just change. If we are willing to live within our means and reward people for getting their education, going to work and working hard, and giving back to their community, we can be the America that we once were. But if we go back to living foolishly and extravagantly, think we can give handouts instead of handups - we will continue to fall further behind our global competitors.

The choice is ours…

The Importance of the Political Middle

Once again those voters who either call themselves independent or are on the margins of either of the mainstream political parties will decide who controls congress after the votes are counted in November. These same voters from the middle are predicted to carry tremendous clout in state races as well.

Mark Halperin in a column in Time Magazine recently said, “Barack Obama is being politically crushed in a vise. From above, by elite opinion about his competence. From below, by mass anger and anxiety over unemployment. And it is too late for him to do anything about this predicament until after November's elections.” He went on to say, “many members of the general public appear deeply skeptical of Obama's capacity to turn things around, especially, but not exclusively, those inclined to dislike him - Tea Partyers and John McCain voters, but also tens of millions of middle-class Americans, including quite a few who turned out for Obama in 2008.”

How did things change so quickly? How did those from the middle, the independents, come to dislike today what they so passionately supported just 22 months ago? It isn’t like the economy was good in 2008. My unqualified belief is that those not drinking the Kool-Aid (die-hard card carrying Democrats and Republicans) are those that truly want what is best for our country, our state, and our local communities.

Now before those of you who are more tried and true political party members of either party think I believe you do not want the same, hear me out. Those who belong to, support, and vote almost always along party lines do want what is best for your country, state, and local community. But you see the world through the paradigm of the party. It is my belief that those not affiliated or those that are loosely affiliated with one party or the other see the world from the middle.

So in 2000 after eight years of President Clinton and the left-leaning policies of his two terms, the middle voted with the Republicans to elect President Bush. And after eight years of policies from the right, the middle voters or independent voters elected President Obama. What is interesting as stated by Mr. Halperin of Time Magazine, is that after only two years of the current administration, many are calling for “change”. Many different political strategist, pundit, talk show host, etc. are predicting a Republican takeover.

I say all of this to say, in this complex, global, and flat world that we live in, can we afford this start and stop process of public policy in which the voting public has to settle for the same old tired ideas that the main political parties espouse. Can this political stalemate or gridlock enable the US, Georgia, or even local communities to truly thrive?

Recently a key Democratic leader was on a talk show and boldly pronounced that the Senate had to get rid of the filibuster rule that mandates 60 Senators approve of a measure to prevent a filibuster. His reasoning was that the filibuster rule was preventing the Democratic led Senate from passing legislation that they wanted passed.

I am not a political expert by any means, but eliminating a rule that has served our country well in preventing either party who finds themselves in the majority from running roughshod over the other party is sacrosanct to me. What if the current administration could pass card-check legislation or cap-in-trade legislation with only a simple majority?

Put the shoe on the other foot. What if the Republicans do take back the Senate and want to outlaw abortion, double the defense budget, or eliminate all entitlement programs without any consideration of the opposing political party or the 40% of the voting public who would oppose such measures?

In an ideal world, political parties and candidates would campaign hard, debate the issues, and then after the individual candidates are elected, these officials would exercise their judgment and vote their conscience. But what really happens is the elected official becomes a tool of the political party that they are members of and the party platform becomes the litmus test of what gets attention.

Independent voters have become, in essence, the filibuster of election cycles. As each party becomes the majority and tries to push the country or state toward its ideology, it is the middle or independent voters who prevent any of the political parties from “taking over” our country and our states.

If we truly want the US or the states that make it up to thrive, we must find a way for bipartisanship. We must hold our elected officials accountable to the office they hold and not to the political party they are a part of. We need our country’s best and brightest signing up to run for elected office and then using their talents to better our nation and our states.

And in the end, would not both political parties benefit or prosper over the long-term if they were more tolerable of those who reside in the middle of the political spectrum? I for one think so.

New Norms for Today

Last week I was heard a radio announcer discussing five new norms for society that were emerging. These new norms included: 1. long-term unemployment, 2. renting vs. owning, 3. saving vs. spending, 4. staycations vs. vacations, and 5. higher tax rates for the wealthy. Each of these have the potential to affect us individually and collectively.

It seems the majority of economists, politicians, and business leaders agree that long-term unemployment is here to stay. Recently at an economic development conference, a very renowned professor of economics from Emory argued that this recovery will most likely resemble the 2000-2001 recovery. That period was known as a “jobless recovery”. And he forecasts that most of the available data points to this recovery being equally jobless.

This is important for many reasons but the most important to me is the dramatic and prolonged impact this new norm will have on those lacking adequate job skills. Most of the job losses have occurred in those jobs requiring minimal skills. As the economy improves, the jobs that will be created will be those requiring a higher skill set. In order for our local citizens, fellow Georgians, and even those unemployed throughout our nation to gain employment, they will have to pursue their skills in order to compete for the new jobs.

Given the dire effects the housing bubble and subsequent problems within the financial sector, a new norm of people renting vs. owning is also a pretty safe bet. An environment of fairly open and easily obtained capital / debt has morphed into one in which even those with good credit will not be approved for mortgages. Those who just a few years ago could obtain a mortgage with little to no money down will be forced to rent their housing for an extended period.

Although we need new construction for the carpet industry to fully rebound, a growing renters market will certainly help with carpet sales as owners of apartments / rental properties traditionally replace their carpet much more often than those that own their homes. As apartments become a larger percentage of available housing, carpet sales could see an increase even while the new home market continues to recover.

In an era of pronounced federal budget deficits and extreme national debt levels, who could argue that a new norm of saving vs. spending is anything but good? Many argue that the US economy has been running on consumer debt / spending for so long, that the correction we have endured was inevitable. As so many have lost so much of their accumulated wealth, saving for the future will naturally become more prominent in the American household budget.

This new norm will certainly help most of us rebuild some of the lost wealth that disappeared during the “great recession”. Our children who have lived during these times and have seen a parent or both parents lose their jobs, or their homes, will be much more likely to be more financially conservative.

As families reduce spending in order to save, transitioning vacations into staycations is another natural trend. Most communities have tremendous recreational / leisure assets right in their backyard. It may not be Disney World, but how many times does one need to see Mickey. Younger generations are much more interested in enjoying the outdoors and recreational activities that are abundant within a short drive of their communities.

Greater Dalton may not be a vacation destination that can offer a family a week’s worth of fun / leisure, but we are certainly a staycation destination. We have tremendous outdoor and recreational assets in our community or within the vicinity of Greater Dalton. Staycations are for those families who live here and want to enjoy a more low-cost and close by “getaway” and for those who live within a half-day’s drive that will come here for a weekend. Staycations have been a key tourism strategy of our Dalton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and this new norm will only make that strategy more successful.

The current debate raging in Congress is the Bush tax cuts. Should they be extended or should they sunset. Extending all the cuts except those that benefit those in the highest 2% of earners seems acceptable by both parties. The President and those in the majority argue, however, that those at the top can afford to pay a little more and should not have their tax cuts extended. Given that it looks like they will punt this issue until after the mid-term elections, the new norm of higher taxes for the wealthy seems imminent.

Taxes should be understandable, transparent, and fair. I think most would argue that most taxes rarely meet this definition. It is easy to pick on the rich. But this class of taxpayers is the investors who enable our economy to grow. They are the business owners, large and small, that create jobs. These new norms seem appropriate given the times we live in.

"Everyone is mad today. Be Happy"

“Everyone is mad today. Be Happy”, said Jeff Immelt, Chairman of the Board for General Electric. Mr. Immelt was quoted while participating in the Montana Economic Development Conference organized by Sen. Max Baucus. Mr. Immelt was in famous company along with CEO of Microsoft Steve Balmer and famous investor Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway also participating in the conference.

Although all three key business leaders expressed many interesting points about the current state of the economy and what we need to do to improve it, I began this column with probably the least impressive quote but to me the one that says the most. It reminds me of the famous marketing line for Nike from a few years ago – Just do it!

Thinking about this unique and difficult time that we are in economically, I feel some of the answers needed to jump start our economy are somewhat simple. The first is for the federal government to stop spending more than it takes in. Our congressman and senators at the federal level need to bury all of their party rhetoric and agree to a few simple guiding principles:
• Hold spending to at least to the level that current revenues will pay for (can you say balanced budget?).
• Agree that earmarks or any funding for typical pork barrel projects must be larger than a state can afford to do (how many projects would meet that standard).
• If a project must be done because it is larger than state resources can afford, a grant must be applied for and approved by an authority separate from a congressman or senator’s own approval.

Everyone is mad today. Politicians are mad and angry and are acting like little children because they are not getting their way in this divisive atmosphere of political theater. Citizens are angry because those elected to lead (I use that term loosely) are not leading. They are fighting over the petty while real problems get neglected. And of course the media, rather than reporting the news, they are choosing sides and are just as partisan as those they are reporting on.

Immelt goes on to suggest that the US will have to or is being restructured because our economy has been and is systemically organized on a system that is not sustainable. He argues that the US economy since the 1970s has been built on consumer credit and the misguided notion that we could be a “lazy” service-based economy. Immelt says, “It was just wrong. It was stupid. It was insane.” He goes on to say, “the future of the economy has to be as an exporter.”

By the way all of this information was in a very good column in the Daily Citizen by Matt Gouras, an Associated Press writer. The column is well written and outlines much more of what was offered by the conference and what these influential business leaders had to say.

My focus on the conference and what the participants had to say was to dive a little deeper into the suggestions they offered. I totally agree that the last forty years of “economic success” has been a house of cards. Living above your means as an everyday citizen and building an economy on consumer credit by a nation are equally foolish. I think most people who look at these propositions from a distance would all agree.

But even as we know that our recent past has dug us into a tremendous hole, our elected leaders at the federal level and in many states are still living in the same vain. Are they fiscally responsible? No, they are living on credit and debt.

What jobs are being created? Government jobs minus those in healthcare (which will soon be government) are the only jobs being created. Government jobs are service jobs – they do not create anything. You cannot export government. Don’t get me wrong, service jobs are need, but when they are the only source of job creation, you lose the ability to withstand the ups and downs of a global economy.

I conclude by saying that given we live in a manufacturing community, we have a tremendous opportunity to lead our state and our country out of the economic state that we are in. Our local flooring industry makes wonderful and needed floor-covering products. We need to protect and improve the business climate that our local businesses operate in. Let’s not waste the learning this difficult period has given us. Instead of Don’t worry – Be Happy, I propose that we do something and be happy! Or as David Star Jordan once said, “Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it.”

Survive or Thrive?

Recently I visited a church where my family were past members and worshipped regularly. We went back to hear Dr. David Swanson who was the youth minister when we were there and now is the Senior Pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. Just as he was over twelve years ago, David – Dr. Swanson delivered a needed and well done sermon. After the service, I wanted to speak to him and pick up a copy of his new book – Vital Signs: Discovering the Keys to Abundant Christian Living.

Although I have just started the book, I am convinced that the theme of his book is exactly the message most of us need to hear. Abundant living in this day and time? Is such a thing possible? This thought reminds me of one of the key principles in Dr. Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Dr. Covey describes the different paradigms from which people see things depending on whether they view the world from a position of abundance or scarcity. A more simple analogy might be viewing the glass as half empty or half full.

If we view the world from a paradigm that there is only so much “stuff” to go around, we will act differently than if we feel that the world is blessed abundantly. Paradoxically one can have tremendous worldly possessions and still see the world with a scarcity paradigm. And often those with little material possessions feel rich beyond measure.

Are we surviving or thriving? There are thousands of answers to this very simple question. The answer depends on who “we” are. It depends on the day to day circumstances that each of us face. It depends on the frame from which we view the world. If measured by the message proclaimed by the talking heads, the media, and the politicians – we are surviving. We are just hanging on.

If we view the question historically or from a position with a longer time line, we are probably doing ok. Some would argue we are thriving. We have clothes to wear, food to eat, cars to drive, etc. We are still better off today than those that lived much differently than in times past.

I am worried these days. I worry because we seem void of real leaders. We have a leadership deficit in this country and in this world. Our elected officials for the most part seem more interested in getting elected and staying elected than really providing real substantive leadership. The issues facing our country today are not that different than those faced before. But today, it seems that those in leadership positions are regularly abdicating the responsibility that came with the office.

As far as community leadership is concerned, we need improvement. In a time when local resources are not what we are used to having, we are fractured and unorganized as to efficiently using resources. In good times having multiple forms of governance may be ok. It may deliver desired results. But in times like these, should we study and discuss new ways of governance in order that we are as effective and efficient as possible.
I would argue that every business in the Greater Dalton community as restructured because of today’s economic reality. They have looked at every program and every cost to validate its existence. Public entities must do even more than there private counterparts. Each and every expense should be reevaluated annually to insure that resources are invested appropriately.

In these very difficult times, how we relate to each other and whether we collaborate with each other is critical to our ability to thrive vs. survive. We should explore every possible opportunity to partner and build each other up. Working in silos and competing for resources will not work. The old adage is still pertinent – a rising tide floats all boats.

Merely surviving is not an option. Not only will we survive, but if we work together, we can begin to thrive sooner rather than later. We must be able to talk to each other civilly. We must partner to utilize fewer resources more effectively. We must work to build each other up which in turn will build up our community.

I really appreciate being on the email distribution list of Varnell Mayor Dan Peeples. Those of you that are equally blessed know what I am talking about. His regular emails to the citizens of Varnell are upbeat and promote a sense of excitement and pride. He is working regularly to promote his City in such a way that is uplifting and energizing. And it seems to be working!

I will leave you with words that a recent senior pastor at my church regularly used as his benediction - Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:13-14). If we will bind together in a spirit of community, we will begin to thrive again realizing an even greater future than we enjoyed in our past.

One Step at a Time

Even in good times measuring progress in the field of economic development can be difficult. Some might say the old adage “two steps forward and one step back” is apropriate. In today’s economy, it seems more like one step forward and two steps back. Nevertheless, a community has to keep moving one step at a time.

Yesterday, we were blessed with wonderful news that the Georgia Department of Labor would open a Social Security claims adjudication office. This office will not only create approximately 40 new jobs for our community but it will also bring thousands to our community annually who need the services provided by the office. Those visiting will get to experience all that our community can offer in retail, lodging, and dining.

Although yesterday’s announcement is wonderful news and we can certainly use the newly created jobs, this project was not a typical recruitment project by our economic development team. But even though we did not recruit this project in the same traditional manner that we have others, we were successful in being chosen because of the foundation we have established with many collaborative partners.

The Grow Greater Dalton Campaign was created to provide accelerated resources for economic development. The campaign established four strategies to be implemented: 1. dramatically accelerate job creation, 2. identify and develop sites for new development and redevelopment, 3. create a vision of a new Greater Dalton and make that vision real through the Archway Partnership, 4. and create a new marketing focus and message for our community.

The formal fund-raising campaign concluded in late 2009 and we have been working on implementing the strategies for less than twelve months. Over the last few months, we have made significant progress. In the area of site development, we have a commerce park under development thanks to the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners and the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority. We have worked successfully with many private landowners in identifying other available and suitable sites for development. We have worked with Dalton Utilities and Electric Cities of Georgia in identifying empty buildings that already have available utility infrastructure that we can redevelop.

Under the leadership of Elyse Cochran, we have dramatically enhanced our marketing message that is attracting attention well ahead of schedule. And this marketing effort is not just a flashy media package that we send out, it is going out and meeting our customers, our targeted clients, and our extended collaborative partners who can assist us. It is meeting with the right decision makers and telling our story.

The latest announcement from Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond is a direct success made possible by our efforts to build relationships across the state of Georgia, throughout the southeast region and even throughout the United States. Our message, that we are open for business and possess the attributes needed by businesses seeking to move or expand, is resonating loudly. Those that need to know about our community are hearing from us like never before. One characterization recently stated by a statewide project manager who said, “the bear has been awakened.”

And strategy number three – create a community vision – is also well on its way to being executed. Melissa Lu and the entire Archway team has worked tirelessly to assimilate past vision documents, data from as many sources as possible, and the wealth of information gathered from the town hall meeting and many focus groups. Very soon the most important community strategies that need our efforts will be communicated and many across the community will have the opportunity to put their mark on our future.

I did not forget strategy number one – dramatically accelerate job creation. I saved the best for last. The Grow Greater Dalton plan set a goal of creating 475 jobs annually. As of yesterday, over 400 new jobs have been created since January 1st. Given that we have four months left in the year, we could achieve our aggressive goal even in these difficult times. The plan also set a goal of achieving $48 million in new capital investment annually. As of yesterday, we have achieved over $90 million in new capital.

The gains we have made are wonderful, exciting, and forecast even greater success going forward. But the reason we are not beating our chest or giving high-fives is there is still so much more to be done. Although our achievements thus far are measurable and meaningful, we have a long way to go in improving the lives of our neighbors. When our job losses total 6000+, the creation of 400 seems a drop in the bucket.

So, our mantra must be one step at a time. Your economic development team will continue to seek every project, we will seek to tell our story to all who will listen, and we will work tirelessly until all who seek a job has one.

State’s Rights Almost Extinct

One hundred and fifty years ago, our country went to war with itself over state’s rights. And today, unless Governors and State Legislatures take a stand against an avarice federal government, state’s rights will be extinct. Issues that are as diverse as illegal immigration to fiscal responsibility to healthcare coverage, independent and sovereign states are losing their constitutional rights each and every day.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, defenders of states' rights were concerned that a powerful, consolidated national government would run roughshod over the states. With ratification of the Constitution in doubt, the Framers promised to add protection for the states. Accordingly, the Tenth Amendment was added to the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment stipulates that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Naturally many issues that faced our country throughout our history have hinged over the debate as to which level of government has ultimate power or authority. Today is no different. The US Government is suing Arizona for its illegal immigration laws while simultaneously bailing out state’s who have been fiscally irresponsible.
Where does it end? California’s citizens voted in Proposition 13 in 1978 hoping to reign in the burden of property taxes. But they did not vote in elected officials who were fiscally responsible. Thirty years later, one of the largest states in the US has a $19 billion budget deficit. California’s deficit is 21% larger than Georgia’s total budget.
The recent “bailout” (I know it is hard to keep up with them given that Congress is passing so many) provides $26 billion in stimulus / bailout funding for education and healthcare. California has a tremendous teacher’s union. Are the two connected? What is the incentive for a state government to manage its budget if the federal government is there to bail it out?
Most would argue that immigration is a federal issue. But what should a state do when they are over-burdened by the number of illegal immigrants because the federal government ignored their responsibility. Because state and local governments incur tremendous costs for education, transportation, criminal justice, and indigent healthcare, they should be able to pass legislation that enables them to fiscally manage the services it provides.
The flip –side should be that states should have to balance their budgets and not rely on stimulus / bailout funding from the federal government. The reason states like California support federal support and would freely give up some of their state’s rights is because they operate much like the federal government. Proposition 13 was passed by the citizens of California to reduce the tax burden on property owners. An unintended consequence is a severe restriction on revenue creation. You cannot have a balanced budget when revenues are restrained / capped while spending continues to increase.
After hearing from two Democratic Governors recently who are leading their states exceptionally, I feel that Governors and their respective state legislatures need to take a stand against a growing federal government. Congress and the President seem intent on the government being the only institution left standing after they are through. The march through state’s rights issues by the current federal leadership is nothing short of Sherman’s march through the south.
If we are to thrive again as a nation, the normal checks and balances at the federal level need to be bolstered by strong leadership at the state level. Governors and state legislators are still close enough to the voter that course-correction is possible. And I have to believe that the majority of Governors believe in fiscal responsibility (balanced budgets), minimizing the role of government, and being responsive to the needs of the voters. If states do not exercise their right to check the power of the federal government, we may never be the nation that the rest of the world looked up to and envied.

The Dog Days of Summer

How are you feeling today? Is your personal “gas” tank full, half-full, or empty? These questions were discussed a couple of days ago in the Sunday School class that I attend. The lesson background came from the book of Ecclesiastes and focused on the wonderful teachings of King Solomon. Most of us are familiar with Chapter three that begins with “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest …” But I must confess that I was not as knowledgeable about the overall message of King Solomon as I should have been.

The general tone of the book is one of melancholy. Some might argue that Solomon was hopeless, tired, and discouraged. But he ends the book with exactly the true message – “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” You are probably asking where in the world I am going with this column.

Glad you asked… it is this time of year that I am just plain old tired (my grandmother used to say “sick and tired”). It has been a long and hot summer. As my wife and I have worked all summer in getting ready for our oldest to go off to college, this summer hasn’t been the slower pace and relaxed tenor of usual summers. After polling my classmates in Sunday School, I found that I was not the only one feeling this way. Many “gas” tanks were emotionally approaching empty.

I would argue that the mood in general is “tired”. We have endured a very long and nasty primary campaign season (four elections alone for the ninth congressional race). The economy has been a drag for over three years now. And just when we saw a few positive indicators that forecasted improvement, the business community in general became spooked by a whole hosts of issues.

Just reflect on the headlines of late - Ethics investigations, soaring deficits, Bush tax cuts expire / everyone’s taxes are going up, teacher layoffs, GDOT broke, etc. Now add a heaping spoonful of political mudslinging and what do you get? Business paralysis, voter apathy and fatigue, and in general a bad attitude!

The Dog Days of Summer are among us. The heat index soars to near record levels. Our utility bills rise just as sharply. We worry about the elderly, the two-a-days that our football players are enduring, and our school band performers. Will we survive? Of course we will.

Just as my extended family spent hot Sunday afternoons gathered under a large pine tree drinking Coca-Cola and eating peanuts, all of us are coping with the current season. We complain about the heat while looking forward to that first hint of fall when the high temperature barely reaches 80 degrees with little to no humidity.

Just as Solomon so poetically stated, there is a season for all things. Better times will return. The current political season will end. School will start back. Football games will be hard fought and exciting. And most importantly, our economy will improve. Jobs will be created. And business capital will be invested.

At the end of the day, we are a blessed nation. God has shown tremendous grace toward our nation. For this we should be grateful. And for this grace and for these blessings, we are obligated to look out for and to love our neighbors. How much more good could be done for those in need if that need came from a caring and loving citizenry, instead of an inefficient and bureaucratic government?

So as these final hot, dog days of summer try to wear you down - put on a smile, greet your neighbor, and be grateful for all that we have. May God continue to bless the world we live on, our nation, our state, and the wonderful Greater Dalton community!

Education is Workforce Development

I recently wrote a column on education reforms. My intent was not to disparage and judge our local school systems or schools. It was simply to suggest that something as important as education should be constantly studied, debated, and improved. Especially given that financial resources have been strained and will continue to be so, we as a community have an obligation to work smarter and be more creative in educating our children.

A few years ago, I heard the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia state that the answer to any question is education, education, and education. I would totally agree. If we want to be a more successful community, a more successful state, and a more successful nation, our students must be given or more appropriately earn a world-class education. I would further state that the ultimate goal of education is preparing future workers for employment. Workforce development and the quality of a community’s work force is one of if not the most important attribute in competing for business retention and business recruitment.

Let me back up and provide a couple of key statistics. Fifty-eight percent of all tax dollars that all of us pay in the various taxes go to fund education. Over $10 billion dollars is spent by our state government on education. The state’s funding for education is augmented by local taxes. Locally, over $245 million is collected in local tax revenues. Of that approximately $174 million is collected by and spent by the two school systems. These numbers do not include those currently being collected for the ESPLOST. Given that almost 60% of state tax dollars and 71% of local tax are invested in education, shouldn’t our expectations be high?

Yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in a conversation with Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High in San Diego, and a small group of business and civic leaders. Mr. Rosentock also spoke Monday evening to a group of over 140 local community citizens. Phillip Brown, Tim Fleming, and Sharon Bonfacious have organized this week’s visit with Mr. Rosenstock. This was the first of a four-part Student-Focused Education series. Others will be held on Nov. 18th of this year, and Feb. 28th and April 14th in 2011.

High Tech High is now a Charter School System in San Diego, California. But, it started as a Technical High School. About 12 years ago, a group of business leaders, civic leaders, and leaders from education begin discussing that change was needed to accelerate educational achievement in San Diego County. The success achieved by High Tech High is remarkable especially when you consider what they have done in only 10 years (last year alone 100% of the graduates were accepted to college).

The group of leaders in San Diego decided to build a Charter School to try a different approach to education. The school would not be controlled by the local school board and would receive normal funding just like existing public schools. High Tech High now operates nine schools in San Diego County: one elementary school, three middle schools, and five high schools. All of these schools serve a diverse, lottery-selected student population; all embody the High Tech High design principles of personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.

The original concept for our Career Academy was to design and implement an educational experience much like what High Tech did in San Diego. Until recently, funding for a true Charter School did not automatically follow. But with the recent change in state law, a Commission School can be chartered which does allow for state and local funding to follow a student transferring from one school to a commission or charter school. I remember visiting Coweta County back in 2003 or 2004 to see what a Charter School looks like and see what it can accomplish.

Although much of the statistical data illustrates that our schools are good today and continue to improve, many wonder how much better we could be if we challenged the status quo and became more entrepreneurial and creative in our approach to education. One statistic stood out from High Tech High. They are now a mini-district with 9 schools and approximately 4000 students. Their administrative expenses / central office expenses are approximately 6.5% of the budget. The other public systems around them have central office expenses that are over 20% of the budget, and the larger the system, the larger the percentage.

Again without intending any criticism of current efforts, current schools, current teachers, etc., what could we achieve with a more open-minded approach to workforce development / education? Could we be more successful if we erased the political boundaries, forgot old prejudices, and truly looked at education and workforce development from an entirely new paradigm? What if the system was truly linked with the goal in mind that all students would seamlessly move through the process engaged and could leave prepared to be successful in any career field they chose?

I think we have the potential to shock ourselves! Just as businesses must innovate to survive, public institutions must also innovate. In today’s dollars, a twelve year education cost over $120,000. Would any of us invest that kind of money on a status quo initiative or one that over 20% of the time delivers an employee who is unemployable in today’s market?

The Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce has a long history of involvement in education issues. For many reasons, we have not been as involved in recent years. Because education is workforce development and workforce development is critical to economic development, we must be involved more today than ever. The jobs created today require more education than a high school diploma provides. The jobs that many of our young people will do are not even created yet. I am hopeful and confident that our community has the desire, the ability, and the fortitude to be like High Tech High in fundamentally changing our approach to education.

The Value of a Fresh Perspective

This summer our community has enjoyed the presence and efforts of 41 interns from the University System of Georgia and the Savannah College of Art and Design. Through the efforts of the Archway Partnership, The City of Dalton, Whitfield County Dalton State College, Dalton Utilities, and many of our floor-covering companies, these interns have been working on a variety of projects that will contribute to a more successful Dalton-Whitfield!

Over the last couple of weeks, these bright and energetic young professionals have spoken to civic groups, the Dalton City Council, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, and the Chamber of Commerce partners about their work. A fresh perspective is invaluable when seeking to do things differently or creatively. The work that these interns have produced is amazing. They have not only dreamed big in thinking what can be, they have also delivered their work product such that we can implement / execute these wonderful ideas over time and as resources become available.

The economic development goals of this community are fairly simple: insure that all who seek a job can obtain one, that wage rates and our standard of living increases over time, and that the community’s wealth also increases over time. These goals can be achieved if the community as a whole remains focused on quality growth. I believe most people want to be successful and be involved in successful activities, organizations, and teams. Businesses are no different. Successful communities are more attractive to new and existing companies’ more than unsuccessful ones are.

As I am afforded the wonderful opportunity to work for our great community, it is exciting to see and dream “what could be.” As I envision the new “miracle field” that Whitfield County intends to build, or hear Ty Ross speak about the City of Dalton’s green space improvements, or Mayor Peeples’ vision for a new Varnell, and the steady and consistent quality of life improvements that are routine for Tunnel Hill - I smile and stick out my chest grateful to live in such a dynamic place with tremendous potential.

To do things out of the ordinary takes courage. To break new ground is risky. The naysayers lack vision. They are happy or satisfied with the status quo. Many of them think the good ole days are worth returning to. Their favorite mirror is the rearview mirror. As Jack Turner once said, “I lived through the good ole days, and I don’t remember them being all that good.” Change is uncomfortable, painful, undesired, sometimes hated, confusing, scary, etc. Change is also guaranteed and constant!

One of the green space projects that seem the most logical in the short-term is the Crawford Street median improvement. This project will cost money. In these economic times, every dollar must be scrutinized. But all expenditures are not sunk costs. Many are investments. The Crawford Street project would create a beautiful and pedestrian-centric corridor leading into and out of downtown that would be an investment in quality of life for the citizens of Dalton. Just as the citizens of Varnell have benefitted from the park enhancing the Varnell Spring, downtown Dalton needs and can benefit from more green space.

With just the mention of this project, the objection of losing parking comes up. The area to be improved is down the middle of a four-lane street that the volume of traffic only warrants a two-lane street. If parking is affected, let’s do our homework and solve for it and not throw out the baby with the bath water.

The interns this summer have produced ideas by thinking about the possible not the impossible. They have truly had the freedom and encouragement to think big! Although budgets and funding and a thousand of other barriers exist that prevent breaking out of the pack, these talented young professionals have shown us not only what is possible but also what is doable.

The Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce is grateful for each of these interns, the institutions they represent, our elected officials and business partners who supported them, the Archway Partnership, Melissa Lu, Ty Ross, Don Cope, and Bob McLeod. We are especially grateful to Elichai and Melanie Hoenig for their outreach efforts and for creating a new and exciting partnership with the Savannah College of Art and Design. The value of a fresh perspective is appreciated!

Voting is Imperative!

As early as middle school social studies class, each of us has been taught the importance of voting. It is a right and a privilege that has been defended and earned by the bravery of our military men and women for centuries. Our very Democracy can only survive if each and every US citizen becomes informed about the issues and the candidates offering themselves for elected office.

I was shocked and dismayed by the attitudes of some in our community in a recent Daily Citizen column. These individuals stated that they probably would not be voting because they did not know the candidates. What a shame. In an earlier column, I stated my enjoyment for the movie the American President. And in that movie, President Andrew Sheppard says “America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've got to want it bad, because it's going to put up a fight.” America is advanced citizenry and we should all do all that is necessary to educate ourselves on the issues and the candidates.

I would argue that we are getting the kind of elected officials who are more concerned about raising money and working their political machines instead of governing because the American electorate is so uneducated about the issues facing our nation, our state, and our community. If we the citizens knew more about the issues and where the officials / candidates stood on the issues, we could hold them accountable.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the tremendous work of the Chamber’s media partners in helping all of us become informed on the issues and the candidates. Dalton’s Daily Citizen, WDNN TV, and the North Georgia Radio Group have all partnered with us in getting information out and on their own over the last few weeks. If someone had only read the series of profiles featured in the Daily Citizen, they could vote and make an informed choice.

The candidates have done their part by participating in numerous forums and attending countless community events seeking to meet people and to get their message out. Campaigning is hard work and those who really want to represent us spend many hours shaking hands and greeting people one on one. I attended an event today for a candidate for Governor and only five people were in attendance. To the candidate’s credit, he answered the questions and espoused his platform with the same energy and passion as if there were five hundred in attendance.

I have said many times that our local community is at a crossroads. We have three options of which direction to take. The fourth option is the one we can see in the rear-view mirror. We know what looking back will do for us. It isn’t realistic or productive except for historical base lining. Going forward can be to choose straight ahead, turn left or turn right. Each option contains elements of the unknown but they also represent going forward.

There are many races up for election this year. It will take some time to become informed. But in the end, the burden is on us to become informed and to elect those that will represent us to the best of their ability. I also believe that most candidates seek elected office to do good. They want to be successful. If we attend the forums, and read the coverage offered by the media, and call / email the candidates and express our concerns, we can make the most informed decision in choosing who we will vote for.

Early voting will continue through next week. Each of us still has time to do our homework. And most importantly, we have plenty of time to vote. If you were inclined not to vote this cycle or have not voted in a few election cycles, think about all those who have fought for our right to do so. Think about those who are serving in desolate foreign lands right now trying to secure for those countries the same right and privilege that many Americans choose not to exercise. And then reconsider your chance to make a difference.

For those that have already voted – Thank You!