As I looked around the Nashville, Tenn. rooms, buses and sidewalks we inhabited yesterday, something struck me: We are an interesting group. From twenty-somethings to those with white hair on the fringes of their pates like me. Among us are bankers, insurance people, journalists, public servants, politicians, public relations professionals, arts mavens, real estate folks, retailers, shopkeepers, restauranteurs — you get the idea. We’re a walking, intellectually-seething microcosm of of Greater Columbus, Georgia, all willing to give up three full days of our business lives and even willing to pay for the opportunity to do it.
This is exactly what a Chicago attorney, Paul P. Harris, was aiming for when on February 23, 1905 his passion for bringing together the best and brightest of his day resulted in the creation of the Rotary Club of Chicago. Today, the 1.2 million-member organization has, among many other things, effectively wiped polio from the map. They’ve done it by carefully selecting a multidisciplinary group of thinkers and problem solvers to bring to bear their minds and energy to solve the problems of the day.
Back to Nashville. Yesterday, we sat in groups while the people responsible for implementing and successfully delivering Nashville’s stellar growth and reputation were paraded before us to tell their stories of their best practices. The Nashville of today was birthed from a Wall Street Journal article many years ago that basically said Nashville didn’t have what it took to be a great Southern city. A series of meetings from a wide swath of the Nashvillians of that day decided they were going to do something about that sad WSJ commentary. Now, six five-year plans later, Nashville is at or near the top in every indicator category and couldn’t possibly be doing more to hone her shiny Music City moniker. So far, the people who have addressed us have all hit on the same talking points. This jewel of a city has been carefully constructed by thoughtful, engaged citizens whose plans are being manifested in what we are seeing on this trip.
During the past few weeks, I have been fortunate to have attended discussions about the creation of a minimum grid of roads and paths to connect the neighborhoods of Columbus. One of the slides NYC’s Gehl Studios showed compared Columbus’ growth over the past few decades with cities like Huntsville, Ala., Savannah, Ga., Athens, Ga. and a couple of others I can’t recall as I sit here in my hotel room at 5 a.m. writing this post. Columbus’ trend line is flat among a sea of rising lines representing these other cities.
Then yesterday, during Bill Murphy’s presentation about the Columbus Chamber’s Regional Prosperity Initiative, there was that shocking statistic: Columbus’s net jobs gain over the past 35 years is ZERO. Look around. We’ve got Aflac, TSYS, Synovus and all the power those huge corporations have brought to our city. Yet, and despite of all the fabulous strides we’ve made on the riverfront, all the streetscape renovations, all the retail, new restaurants that have come online, we haven’t made any headway in 35 years!
What is or are the reasons? Is it poverty? Is it our tax structure? That we’re not on a major interstate highway? Have we been spending too much time trying to lure the wrong business entities? Is a great local retailer on Broadway worth more than we think to our local economy? Is that honking, huge big-box retailer spewing smoke and mirrors that make us think they’re more important to our city than they really are?
The high-energy buzz that I have around me on this trip to Nashville says this group and the spinoffs that will occur when we get back home tells me this group wants to know the answers to these and other questions. I’m so excited to be a part of it. #iclcnashville #iclc2015