One Macon targets jobs, education and sense of place

lmorris@macon.comMay 31, 2014 

When it comes to a new push for a common vision for Macon-Bibb County, the name says it all: One Macon.

“One Macon, just in the name, symbolizes so much,” said Cliffard Whitby, one of three chairmen of the One Macon initiative that aims to address some of the city and county’s most pressing problems. “We are finally recognizing that we must work together to make this a better place for every constituency, every political group, every social group, every economic group.”

Last year, the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and several community partners retained Atlanta-based Market Street Services, a community and economic development consulting firm, to help develop a vision for the now-merged city and county.

The foundation of the 215-page plan lies in three community pillars: quality schools, abundant jobs that match the skills of residents and vibrant places that are attractive to diverse populations.

Whitby, owner of Whitby Inc., is joined by Robbo Hatcher, CEO of H2 Capital Inc., and Kathryn Dennis, president of Community Foundation of Central Georgia, to help lead the effort along with a large committee of community partners.

“I think that One Macon is about alignment and cooperative coordination of a lot of efforts that are going on around our community to improve it so that we don’t expend the energy duplicating things across the community, and we don’t miss things that aren’t getting done,” Hatcher said.

The Telegraph recently sat down with Dennis, Hatcher and Whitby to discuss One Macon and what it means to the community. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

QUESTION: Tell me how this initiative is designed to work to help the community.

DENNIS: It’s going to bring together organizations that are working on the three pillars -- the schools, jobs and places. So it will help the community by strengthening our school system, increase the number of jobs and make our community, all the neighborhoods where we live, more livable and stronger.

HATCHER: And those three pillars were developed out of research that shows what I would call the longest levers. ... If you are going to move something big, you need a lot of leverage, and those three were the three approaches we could take in Macon and Middle Georgia that ... would do the most good in our community for the investment of time and effort.

QUESTION: How do you plan to engage the community? As a follow-up question, what would you need to see from the community to let you know the community is fully engaged?

WHITBY: To me that’s an easy one. The initiative is solely depending on the community being engaged. This is not the tri-chairs nor the steering committee initiative. It is truly the community, one Macon, to begin to explore some of the strategies that have been identified, revise them as necessary. That takes authentically engaging every aspect of our community to fully make this work and for this to be representative of what we think it can be.

HATCHER: As we make presentations about One Macon to groups across the community, we are getting unanimous nodding of heads and consensus and buy-in. And the school board ... spontaneously agreeing to support the initiative and to partner with business groups to form a business-education partnership, that’s a huge endorsement. And I think it’s reflective of the kind of reception we’re getting everywhere we go.

DENNIS: That’s why when we say “One Macon,” that we will be out in the community and (someone) will say, “Oh, I read that in the paper” or “that’s great. I heard that.” And they will tell their friends this is going on and these good things are happening. For me, that will be the anecdotal way of saying that things are changing is when places and people are positive and are talking about all the great things that are happening.

HATCHER: But at the same time, you bring up the point of metrics. As a part of this, we are developing metrics for every one of the strategies. And since engaged residents and collaborative residents are an underpinning of our strategies, one of the things we will be looking at is how do we measure engagement and are we moving the needle in engagement across the community.

QUESTION: Market Street Services found that issues of race, leadership and trust are central to most issues, including economic development. How does this plan overcome those issues?

WHITBY: I think we’ve already begun, if you just look at the three tri-chairs here ... and honestly try to understand each other’s perspectives. We sit here very cordial and polite right now, but we’ve had differences on some of the areas that are sort of tough to discuss. ... Some of these issues are not simple. They are not easy. They are generational. And the only way, I think, that we can begin to break down some of the barriers of trust is that we can give each other opportunities to understand exactly the barriers as they exist.

HATCHER: The idea is as we work together, we collaborate ... . Nothing builds trust like working together and having a win. ... Our steering committee caught onto that and modeled it very well. We had good frank, honest discussions, but it was respectful. And I think at the end of the day when we rolled out the plan we had, everybody was real happy with it. It felt like we had a win, and that builds trust and that breaks down barriers between us.

QUESTION: There are various components of the initiative, which in large part aim to lift up the community. How do you take one initiative and coordinate all the moving parts to actually see results?

WHITBY: That’s a good question and one that we are still working on. ... But when you think about it, we intend to use everything that’s available and ... understanding how other communities have been successful in starting this type of initiative and staying with it. The most important thing is that we have the resolve to stay with this. All of that, in time, we will find the answers. ... I truly believe if we trust one another and pull from each other strengths, I think those answers will become very crystallized as we move forward.

DENNIS: Each strategy also has a lead partner and all the supporting partners, and they’re already meeting and each of the strategies has a timeline on it. ... You take the bits and pieces, you set your goals and you accomplish them. Then you are moving the needle.

HATCHER: We have a lot of moving partners, and so you can cover a lot of ground when you’ve got 50 to 70 organizations out in the community, out in the neighborhoods, out in the various facets of Middle Georgia working to make a difference in their area of expertise.

QUESTION: How is One Macon different from previous community initiatives we’ve seen before? Some have referred to the Fantus study that was done several years ago.

HATCHER: The Fantus study was a technical study to determine what industry segments would do well in Macon and Middle Georgia environment, given our labor shed, given our location, given our water resources and other resources that we have. ... That’s all it did.

One Macon does that, but it looks at the whole community and recognizes that everything is economic development. Improving our downtown is economic development. Improving our neighborhoods is economic development. Improving our school systems is economic development. Raising our educational attainment level is economic development. All that impacts the economy, not just attracting another company in a targeted industry segment. While that’s really important and you don’t stop doing that, it doesn’t stop there.

WHITBY: This community has gone through radical change over the last couple of years, and we think the time is right for us to come together as a community. The name says it all -- once again, One Macon. If we demonstrate the resolve necessary, as (Mayor) Robert Reichert says, “we’re all in the same boat.” We cannot feel comfortable if one end or the other has a hole in it. We’ve got to fix the hole in the boat so we can all sail along and be prepared for the high tide that will come.

QUESTION: This plan, in part, calls for partnerships to achieve specific goals. Have you already lined up all the necessary support from various groups? And is there any financial commitment from any of the groups involved to see that goals are achieved?

DENNIS: Yes, we have our partners. They have been at the table and we have gone out and identified those that weren’t on the original steering committee that weren’t identified as partners for the various strategies. So, yes everybody is on board there. The financial side of it is a moving target.

HATCHER: We recognize that we are not a centralized funding source. So One Macon isn’t going to go raise all the money and give it to the partners. The partners already have plans in place, already have fundraising capabilities in place and are already doing that work and funding it. We will probably raise some money to help administer and coordinate it, and we will raise some money to fill gaps. ... But the idea is to leverage the capacity of all the people who are already out there working on this kind of stuff and not duplicate it.

QUESTION: So those groups you just mentioned, those are the partners you are talking about?

HATCHER: Some of them. The committee is representative of them. For example, just taking one segment and saying development of downtown place, you have Urban Development Authority, you have NewTown Macon, you have College Hill Corridor, you have the city, county, you have Historic Macon, the Ocmulgee trail, the Ocmulgee Monument. All those people ... in downtown redevelopment are already at the table in one form or another.

An example of early success, in my opinion, for One Macon is as the Urban Development Authority was thinking about doing another plan for downtown, they paused a little bit to align with what One Macon’s strategy was (and to align with the plans by NewTown Macon and College Hill Alliance) ... and coordinate with everybody’s existing work rather than independently.

WHITBY: And we just think that’s a smart approach. We don’t know what the number is. What we’ve charged the (implementation committee) to do is coming and examining and accessing how .... we can leverage existing resources to accomplish some of the strategies and matrixes and grids that are in that plan. But at the end of the day, this community is committing to doing whatever it takes to accomplish what collectively our strategies are that we feel will move this community in the direction we are trying to go.

QUESTION: I understand you have concrete time lines in the plan and action plans connected with One Macon. How quickly do you expect to start seeing results?

HATCHER: One of the recommendations was to form a logistics council, and that council has been formed and will be meeting soon. So not just soft results like coordination of new plans but also hard results like various technical recommendations in there are being done.

WHITBY: We also recognize that some of the low-hanging fruit may be beneficial to keep people encouraged and motivated. ... The true dividend will be paid when we can declare the business community is partnering with the educational community to produce a very capable and competent workforce, because we will be able to go out and attract the type of industry into this community that could provide the type of head-of-household jobs that all of us want to see happen. That’s not something we’re going to fix overnight. But we certainly can ... make sure that we support the public school system and ensure that the public school system is aware that we are here to do everything we can to assist them with what they are ultimately responsible for, which is educating our children. But they can’t do that alone, and they need the support of the total community.

DENNIS: There will be measures of input. What are we putting into it to move the needle over? But then in the end, is our average household income rising? Is our graduation rate improving? What’s our educational attainment? Those are the things maybe we won’t see an immediate improvement in, but if we’re putting the right effort into it, then we should be able to see improvement in a few years. ... We are going to have public forums. We are going to check back. Are these things the right things? Basically do you still agree that these are what we need to be working on? Is it making a difference?

WHITBY: We are not being naive. We understand that there are some tough decisions that will have to be made. Accountability is crucial to making this successful. ... We do need to have a process in place that’s going to genuinely evaluate how we’re extending these community resources.

QUESTION: Most plans that involve substantial and meaningful change take time. How do you ensure that One Macon doesn’t fall apart or that people don’t lose interest?

DENNIS: Strong-arm tactics. (laughing) Nobody can leave the circle. It’s a commitment, and making sure that we are discussing the progress with the group that there is honest feedback saying that if they feel like it’s not a good use of their time, they need to speak up.

HATCHER: If we can get that right and everybody is engaged ... and keep working at it and it moves forward: success. If we get some wins on the front end and everybody’s engaged in that win and feels good about it, that garners more support and it makes people want to keep moving and staying involved. If we falter, we need to call that out. If it was a fast fail, recognize the lesson from it and call that a win. And above all, keep everybody engaged. With their engagement will come ultimate success.

QUESTION: Regarding the initiative’s three pillars, give me an example of what you’d like to see regarding a “sense of place.”

HATCHER: A full downtown without empty store fronts. Neighborhoods that didn’t have trash in the medians and on the corners. Dilapidated houses that weren’t boarded up. Crack houses that have been either knocked over and redeveloped or put back together (with) people in them.

DENNIS: Festivals, community events around the city and people enjoying their neighbors and public spaces that we have available, and taking care of those public spaces.

WHITBY: When you can have people feeling good about this being home and they are proud that we are doing it together and it’s working and we’re enjoying each other’s company and happy to be here and not feeling trapped or just stymied.

DENNIS: That people think there is a lot to do in Macon. There is that old teenager trap “I don’t have anything to do.” That is already not the case, but so that everybody has a niche, has their activity and their enjoyment and that Macon offers that for them.

QUESTION: Some employers here say that local schools seem to be disconnected from local workforce needs. Also we are losing a lot of our college graduates because of the lack of head-of-household jobs. How does this plan deal with those issues?

DENNIS: It’s connecting the schools more closely to the businesses. There are already in the works some great internships and partnerships with the schools that are pretty far down the road in discussion. ... Central Georgia Tech works very closely with the workforce of our employers to find out what needs they have. And so pushing that back into the school system, I think, is a priority as well.

WHITBY: We recognize that’s our biggest gain, when we can successfully create an environment to where this community feels that it can have successful schools with dividends that would pay down the road.

DENNIS: What Market Street told us is that we have 21,000 college students in our community. ... We are a college town, so finding opportunities for those students to stay is critical. It’s a mobile economy. You can work from home, and having that place where they want to be is critical, too.

QUESTION: In terms of education, there have been multiple efforts to fix it here in Bibb County. Education is such a complex topic with problems that sometimes seem insurmountable. How do you keep people from losing focus, interest and even hope?

WHITBY: Ownership. If not us, who, and if not now, when? This is not something where you can wave a wand and fix. It’s so complex that it requires multiple approaches. But if the end result is to see young people who are skilled in the basics and give them the opportunity to further that education, you will see a change in the attitude in the community. You will see a change in the business community. ... Opportunity will be bred just simply out of producing young people who recognize that they have options.

DENNIS: The business-education partnership -- when you look at it with other partnerships -- they have fabulous leadership, strong resources, deep commitment ... It’s being able to stay at the table, navigate through the bumpy waters.

QUESTION: By design, some of the same people who were on the steering committee are on the implementation committee of One Macon. How were people selected to serve on these committees, and what is the role of the implementation committee?

HATCHER: The steering committee was selected for the largest-size group we thought we could manage in the process, which was maybe about 40 people. If it gets too big, it’s hard for everybody to be involved. But if it wasn’t big enough, it wasn’t representative enough. So we found people, in as many cases as we could, who represented more than one facet of the community.

With the implementation committee, we allowed that to grow a little bit because we think those are more representative of the partners that are really doing the work. As we have more partners at the table, we need to have more people on the implementation committee. ... We wanted age, race, gender balance. We wanted to make sure we’ve got school board of education, business and nonprofits, and government and quasi-government.

DENNIS: It certainly wasn’t exclusive. It was how can we have a broad segment of the community represented in a fairly small group. That was a challenge. ... I think we came up with a really strong team because we can have frank and open discussions.

QUESTION: Anything else to add?

WHITBY: There is a great deal riding on this initiative. ... We are a consolidated government and have a spirit of optimism and hope, and we feel a great deal of responsibility to capitalize on that and move this community in the direction that I think by all accounts the majority of our citizens have agreed that we are ready to go.

DENNIS: The community is ready. The community wants unity.

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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