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Monday, February 20, 2012

The State of our Community is Good but not Great

A short 30 months ago, I was honored and blessed to be chosen to lead a fantastic team at the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce. I not only work with compassionate, energetic, and truly professional community developers, I also serve with amazing board members who give of their time, talent, and treasures serving our community. And as I reflect on where we were two and a half years ago and where we are today, it is my opinion that although we are a very good community, we have yet to achieve the status of being great.

As Jim Collins states in his book Good to Great, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” My opinion is not intended to put our community down nor do I feel I am any kind of expert on the subject. Considering Collin’s definition, an argument can be made that greatness is achievable in our community. You could further argue that we are beginning to demonstrate a willingness to make appropriate conscious choices and to be disciplined in our approach to community development.

The Role of the Chamber

What really is a Chamber of Commerce? What is community development? Why is the Chamber involved in education, economic development, legislative affairs, and leadership development? These are very good questions. Although the answers to them can vary depending on the issue at hand, I will attempt to provide a progress report on our efforts to serve our community in its pursuit of greatness.

I am grateful for the Daily Citizen and their annual Progress Edition. Sometime we all need a more in depth look at the truly important issues facing our community, our state, and our nation. A typical news story rarely has the ability to fully communicate all the dimensions of an issue. Even though we have very good reporters in our community who work very hard to cover the news, some stories are too complex for even the best reporter. I will attempt to cover a number of areas the Chamber is working on and to provide a little more depth on a few community issues.

The mission of the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce is to serve as the unified voice of business, to promote economic prosperity of the region and to build partnerships and leadership that improves the quality of life while delivering superior member services. Our vision is to provide the leadership necessary to leverage community resources and to build partnerships that are focused on positive community growth. We work to accomplish our mission and vision by focusing on three core areas: economic development, leadership development, and community development.

Economic Development

In October 2008 when I was given the honor to join the Chamber team, our local economy was in the middle of the great recession. Unemployment was at an all-time high, foreclosures were high and increasing, businesses large and small were struggling to say the least. Every sector of our community was feeling the brunt of a declining or recessionary economy. But even in such a bleak time, community and business leaders much wiser than me made the conscious choice to invest in and build for the future. Thus the Grow Greater Dalton initiative was born.

Grow Greater Dalton was and is a capital campaign created to accelerate the resource needs for economic and community development. The four year commitments totaled over $6.1 million for investing in key strategies that will take us to the next level. 2010 was the first year of execution for the initiative, and although the results were not on goal, they were significant given the economic times we are in. In year one, our community benefitted from the creation of 501 direct and indirect jobs or 15.6% of our four year goal. We also achieved $28 million in new capital investment in year one or 14.8% of our four year goal.

Since 2005 when the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority was created, we have come a long way in the economic development arena. Because of Grow Greater Dalton, we have an experienced and professional economic development team. They, in collaboration with our community’s elected officials, are building a tremendous economic development toolbox (or war chest) to compete regionally and globally.

In recent months, there has been considerable chatter about the new Carbondale Business Park. I deliberately use the word chatter in order to discuss the positive and negative feedback that we receive concerning the development of this park. We have received very positive feedback from our state project managers concerning the park because they can now show potential clients land that can be quickly acquired and built on. Businesses who are seeking to locate a new or expanded operation in our area can begin building here almost immediately because of all the predevelopment work that has already been completed. In this scenario, time is definitely money. Having a first-class, turn-key business park catapults our community ahead of most communities in the region.

Some of the negative chatter includes a few who are opposed to any type of government involvement in the free market system. Some members of our real estate community that have expressed concerns are only considering the individual transaction side of the process and have ignored the larger picture. Anytime a project as large as the development of a commerce or industrial park is concerned, everything will not go exactly to plan. It is very easy to armchair quarterback a process like this if one only follows the stories in the newspaper. I would even admit that those of us intimately involved have not agreed with every decision.

However, I can unequivocally endorse that having a commerce park that has the basic infrastructure in place will accelerate our ability to market our community and will accelerate development within our community. Some projects will be attracted to our area because of the commerce park, but will ultimately purchase or lease other land or existing buildings. Overall real estate activity will be increased and ultimately benefit all stakeholders. And accelerating investment will expand our overall tax base allowing tax rates to remain as they are or possibly even decrease over time.

Recently, the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority asked for our local governments to seek redevelopment powers through an instrument known as Tax Allocation Districts or TADs. Contrary to a few utterances in the newspaper, this tool is used in 49 states and has been successful in most cases. The largest and most visible TAD project in our area is the 138 acre Atlantic Station development off I-75 in Atlanta. An old environment brown field site was converted to a successful mixed-use development. In layman’s terms, a TAD allows a local government to build necessary infrastructure for a development with the anticipated tax dollars that the newly created development will generate once built. All other taxpayers in a jurisdiction are not affected.

The retail project off of Shugart Road is a development project that a TAD could have helped with. The infrastructure needs like demolishing the old buildings and building the accel and decel lanes for safer access into and out of the site could have been paid for through a TAD. In other words, the developer could have borrowed the capital needed for some of the project costs, and then paid back the loan through his future tax payments. The community wins by having needed and desired retail and commercial investments, and the developer can complete a development quicker by having more financial capital available.

Some have also commented and insinuated that attracting retail development is not a worthwhile endeavor because retail jobs are low paying. Although the retail sector (shopping and dining) do pay lower average wages versus manufacturing, successful communities need both segments in order to be successful. We have tremendous retail leakage in our community because many of our citizens travel to Chattanooga and Atlanta to shop and eat at certain establishments not available here. So the more we can attract these amenities here, we keep those dollars circulating in our economy.

And as a community suffering with an unemployment rate of 13%, jobs are needed of all types. As Dalton State College transitions to a more residential campus, young people (especially college students) need entry-level employment opportunities to finance their pursuit of higher education. Expanding our shopping and dining options can provide the needed part-time and full-time employment opportunities. And we will benefit from keeping shopping local by also keeping the sales tax revenue these transactions generate for our use in our community. Expanded development in the retail sector is beneficial to our community with or without the use of a TAD. But by having the ability to use one when needed makes us more competitive.

A final program of work under the economic development scope of our mission is workforce development. Most jobs of the future will require some level of education beyond high school. And a greater majority of those receiving post-secondary education today and in the future will be in technical fields. There will always be a need for those receiving the traditional four-year bachelor degrees. But most other jobs not requiring a four-year degree will require one or two years of education beyond high school.

The business community and the Chamber worked hard to get Georgia Northwestern Technical College here in our community to expand the educational opportunities available to those preparing for the workplace. Now that Georgia Northwestern will be offering classes beginning in August, we will have the best of both worlds. Future workers young and not so young can choose which institution best fits their needs. And our community will benefit from more and more of our citizens having the workplace skills that will help them be successful.

Leadership Development

The Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce is well known for its signature leadership development program – Leadership Dalton-Whitfield. We are in our 26th year of helping the current and future leaders of our community understand our community a little better in preparation for service. The 30-40 participants annually have a unique opportunity to really get to see our community from a variety of perspectives and through well-planned sessions ranging from local economics, education, the judicial system, etc. Under the capable stewardship of community leaders who volunteer their time and talent to leading this endeavor, Leadership Dalton-Whitfield will continue equipping our community’s leaders.

For our younger future leaders, the Chamber created the Emerging Leaders program a couple of years ago. This program is targeted at those young professionals who are in the early years of their professional careers but are interested in beginning their service to the community. These future leaders get to learn about our community while also participating in leadership development. As we assist the participants in building their leadership capability, they will in turn be more prepared to serve in the areas they are passionate about.

Community Development

The area of Community Development is a very broad segment of our mission including: community visioning, legislative advocacy, etc. Almost fifteen years ago, the Chamber participated in the Target Tomorrow visioning process. In 2008, after learning about the Archway Partnership community outreach program of the University System of Georgia, it seemed appropriate that we become an Archway community to develop community strategies that will assist us in becoming a great community. After almost two years of work involving hundreds from our community, we have created many strategies that once executed will produce tremendous results.

The Chamber continues to advocate on behalf of our community and our business partners for effective governance at the local, state, and national levels. We work with our local cities and our county to develop and implement policies that will benefit our community. At the State level, we work throughout the legislative session reviewing bills and communicating with state officials our thoughts on those that will be beneficial to us. We do not always get the legislation passed that we support, but our success rate is better than average.

Consider the recent discussions between the City of Dalton and Whitfield County. Although the Chamber did not initiate the discussion or lead the retreat that led to the decision to pursue a Charter Commission, we do support a study of creating a new form of government. The primary reason for supporting the study of a new way of governing will at a minimum enable the two governing entities to understand the services provided by both. The Great Recession in my opinion has reset the economic wealth button. The debt owed at the national level and most state levels will put tremendous pressure on the financial affairs of all entities. Families have lost tremendous economic means over the last four years. And unemployment is forecasted to remain higher for a long time. Thus governments of all types need to really study ways to deliver needed services more efficiently. We should never continue doing business the way we always did it.

Getting from Good to Great

I stated many times that my family and I love our community. Of all the places I have lived and worked, Dalton has been a wonderful place to raise our children. Being a good community is better than most. There are very few communities that would be rated as great. But I think we have the potential to achieve that classification.

What will it take? There are many areas that we are improving in and others that we are at least now willing to discuss that if changed would propel us to greatness. Although we have made tremendous strides over the last five years in economic development, we have more to do. The foundation has been laid. But to achieve greatness in economic development, we need to be chosen by the companies we are recruiting. In a short few years, we have moved from not even being considered, to getting on the initial list of communities competing for projects, and now we are making the short list of perspective companies. As we become the community of choice for relocating and expanding companies, we will move toward greatness.

In the area of education and workforce development, again significant strides have been made. But until every student graduates from High School and receives at least one year of post-secondary education, we will fall behind most global communities. We need a comprehensive overall of our American education system. It must be innovative, inspiring, and rigorous. All students must be able to perform basic work place skills or they will simply be unemployable. Comparing our schools only against comparable Georgia schools will not enable ours to become best in class. Our children are born with the requisite intelligence, but many get left behind early in the process and never catch up.

The most important area that I feel must improve for us to become great is the area of working together. I will not by name acknowledge the section in the newspaper that people are allowed to comment in, but I will say that I scan this section only to confirm how far we have to go to reach greatness. Although I am convinced that the same ten people call in 90% of the comments, it amazes me how negative and petty some people can be. Until the majority of the comments are complimenting someone or some group or just praising the blessed place we all call home, I am convinced we have work to do.

For the first time in my ten years of living in Whitfield County, I feel we have tremendous leadership capacity in all the right places. We must seize this time by putting aside past prejudices and differences and work to build a greater and more unified community. I am not saying everything has to merge. But I am saying we need to work harder and better together in maximizing our strengths and minimizing our weaknesses.
As Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” The Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce pledges to work with all stakeholders who seek to build a great community.

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