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Lessons Learned

I had the opportunity to be in Nashville, Tennessee earlier this month with more than 1,000 Chamber of Commerce Professionals from all over the world. Those leaders had gathered to share best practices and unique programs as well as lessons on how they were tackling their toughest challenges in their communities back home.

It was an interesting collection of people. Every size city, town or region was represented, from a broad geographic footprint. No two communities are exactly alike, but if you look hard enough, you’ll notice more similarities than differences.

I came away with some interesting perspectives about what was happening elsewhere in the country.

My peers told tales of downtown redevelopment and revitalization. Spoke of the important roles colleges and universities were playing in their development efforts. Shared about their efforts to retain young people and stop the out-migration of talent. I heard about workforce shortages and how they were working to develop their workforce to meet employer needs.

Quality of Place Improvements was a common theme as each recognized the great value in those investments. Many spoke of the great collaboration happening across their region and the new initiatives they were working on with their neighbors. Amongst other items, I heard about major infrastructure improvements, about how businesses were working with government, and how technology was changing their businesses and communities.

Sound familiar at all? I hope so, a lot of similar efforts are happening across our region. In some of those efforts, we are outpacing our peers. On others, we’re behind. Though our group loves to come together to share those best practices, we also recognize the competition is fierce and in the end we’re all fighting for the same talent, jobs, and capital investment. We must keep pace.

One glaring area where we lag behind is in populations growth. Cities like Nashville are adding more than one hundred people per day, Charleston almost fifty per day. By comparison, we’ve been adding about one person per day over the first half of this decade.

Population growth is a key factor in a company’s decision to grow in a community or re-locate to an area. High employment and low un-employment have left employers with the chief concern about whether they can attract the people they need to fill available jobs. We’ve seen first-hand where companies that liked all our area had to offer instead opt for somewhere else because of this workforce concern.

New housing opportunities in our downtowns will help. New trail connections between communities, a faster connection to Chicago via the South Shore, and many other quality of place improvements are also a plus. If we do it right, the next three years could be transformative. Sputter, and we’ll fall farther behind.

Key components of the Regional Cities initiative were to grow population and build a national brand. The $700 million plus in planned improvements will help us do both. Construction on some of those projects has commenced, others will begin within the next year.

Physical improvements alone won’t drive growth. A coordinated regional effort is essential, as well as ambassadors from every part of the region touting the strengths they see in the area and the opportunities that exist on the horizon.

Which role will you play? A champion willing to roll up your sleeves and help make a difference or a critic lobbing in criticisms from the sidelines. What I found from my peers was a genuine excitement amongst its leaders and citizens for the progress in their communities. Our competition is fierce, we must keep pace, and we need you to play an important role in that effort.



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