Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On being thankful!

By Jim Vaughan, Senior Fellow

The news that some big retailers will be opening on Thanksgiving Day this year and that there may be a shortage of turkeys has me thinking about this great American holiday and how it came to be sacrosanct in our culture.

I mean, is there anything more American than turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole and baked pies—pumpkin, apple, cherry and pecan?

Actually, about the only thing on today’s Thanksgiving menu that the Pilgrims enjoyed in 1621 was the turkey and it was not the “centerpiece” of the meal according to More likely goose or duck was the wildfowl of choice and there was pumpkin, squash, Indian corn and nuts gathered from the forest.

Not even the date is historical. President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a national day of thanksgiving. Other presidents did likewise, from time to time, until President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national, annual holiday with a specific date, the last Thursday in November.

All was well for 75 years until President Franklin Roosevelt, at the behest of retailers seeking to extend the Christmas shopping season, moved the date to the second-to-last Thursday which is said to have divided the country with some states following FDR’s proclamation, others celebrating on the traditional date and Colorado and Texas deciding to honor both dates! In 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur on the fourth Thursday of November where it has been celebrated ever since.

One thing hasn’t changed, however, and that is Thanksgiving Day is a time to gather together—with family and friends and as a grateful nation—to give thanks for our many blessings.

On this Thanksgiving, my associates and I at Market Street Services are thankful for the work local and state chambers are doing to strengthen our nation’s economy and important initiatives to improve the lives of all people.

And we are especially thankful to our clients for the opportunity you have given us to work with you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Friend from Long Ago

By J. Mac Holladay

I had come home to Memphis from five years as a U.S. Naval Aviator. I had been all over Asia, including Vietnam. I was hired by Dave Cooley, the strong and visionary head of the Memphis Chamber. My dad said it was the organization that was making a difference. 

I was the low man on the staff chart. They called me the Director of Special Projects. That meant that I was assigned any and all tasks that none of the key staff wanted to do. So when Memphis faced a seriously controversial school desegregation order in the fall of 1972 and Mr. Cooley decided we had to lead, not follow, I got the call.

We wrote a grant request from the U.S. Department of Justice to help us peacefully desegregate all of Memphis' public schools. With the help of our U.S. Senator, Howard Baker, we got the grant.

So we created IMPACT - Involved Memphis Parents Assisting Children and Teachers. Our core committee was headed by a Methodist minister named Jim Holmes. It was a diverse, dedicated group of citizens. I was the Executive Director. The intensity, the danger, and the importance of what we were doing made those six months before the buses rolled some of the most interesting and exciting of my career. Every child got to school safely that January morning in 1973.

One man captured what happened and its importance at the time. His name is John Egerton. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, served in Army, and in 1965 moved to Nashville to work for Southern Education Reporting Service. John reported on civil rights as it unfolded and later wrote ten books about integration in the South and was the co-creator of the documentary A Child Shall Lead Them, which is about the desegregation of Nashville's schools.

While it is less well known than many of his books, he also wrote a short history of our work in Memphis. It is titled "Promise of Promise," which he wrote for the Southern Regional Council. Memphis was the first major city in the South to peacefully desegregate its schools in 1972-73. John told the story of our people, our strategy, our tactics, and our success. It made me proud to be a part of the story.

John Egerton died on Thursday at his home in Nashville. While he later wrote about food and the connection of social justice with our Southern culture, I know what he cared about the most. He wanted the South to be better than it was, and he knew we had to do it together. Thanks John. I, and many others, will miss you and not forget what you wrote all those years ago.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Future of a Car Reliant City

I grew up in suburban Florida where mass transportation and a walkable community were outlandish topics so Atlanta, comparatively, is a transportation mecca. Not to say that Atlanta doesn’t have work to do. Like many other cities, Atlanta is faced with setbacks that are up to the city leaders to address. After the initial implosion of TSPLOST the dreams of Atlanta becoming a city that doesn’t depend as much on their cars seemed doomed. A year and a half later, there’s been a lot of rumblings around town lately about Atlanta’s transportation “issue” and ways the City is trying approach it and prove that it – in certain areas – is an alternative commute-friendly place. Below are some examples of how Atlanta is trying to incorporate new and old ideas into its transportation infrastructure.

I’m sure everyone is well aware of Atlanta’s traffic woes but significant strides are being taken to offer other options to residents. Progress has been most noticeably evident over the past couple years in areas like Midtown and parts of Downtown. To solidify that statement, the City of Atlanta was recently awarded a bronze level “Walk-Friendly” honor. The “gold level” wasn’t achieved but at least it means the City is making progress and hopefully will continue to work on its walkable options. With more walkability comes positive attributes like less car reliance, healthier communities, supporting local business, more green space, etc. Supporting efforts include the newly paved bike paths around Atlanta and, of course, the always popular and one of my personal favorites – the Beltline.

Another effort to help with transportation that has been getting a ton of press is the streetcar that’s currently being built downtown. Atlanta is looking to its past for inspiration and currently constructing a 2.6 mile path from Downtown to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district, which is located about a mile away. The streetcar will be the first modern line in Atlanta and hopes to reach North Atlanta in the coming years. The “past” is referenced here because back in the day – before cars – Atlanta was reliant on streetcars as the main source of transportation. Now – due to congestion issues and lack of transportation options downtown – the City has decided to bring back the streetcars to provide a more efficient system and hopefully put an ease to traffic.

Atlanta Streets Alive! is another program that the City is backing – allowing people to get out and just be social. The streets are closed for four hours in a participating neighborhood and the whole objective is to encourage people to take part in outdoor fun by walking or biking. According to the Streets Alive! website the three goals they strive for are to celebrate neighborhoods, expose attendees to outdoor fun, and to encourage people to take the streets by foot or bike.

While Atlanta still has to overcome a lot of obstacles to truly become a walkable city with a plethora of transportation options, progress is happening. It might not be as swift as many may like but as the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Crisis

By J. Mac Holladay, founder and CEO.

I have just returned from two weeks in Spain and Portugal. The trip was another Washington and Lee University Alumni College experience starting in Barcelona and ending in Lisbon. My wife and I extended our trip in Madrid by several days.

The overwhelming feeling I got throughout the trip is the difficult state of the economy in both countries. What we have termed The Great Recession, they call The Crisis. And for them, it is NOT over.

Spain’s official unemployment rate is 26% with little prospects of it coming down anytime soon. That is coupled with a 63% labor force participation rate (the same as the US). While Spain’s exports are increasing, only 4% of the nation’s firms export and many of them are not consistent exporters. The rising Euro threatens this strategy as many of its top customers are in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. One hopeful sign is that over 75,000 Spaniards have received micro-loans (up to 25K euros) from 2008 to 2011 in order to start small businesses. Another hopeful sign for both countries is a recent rise in consumer confidence. Portugal’s confidence index rose 22 points to 55 in the third quarter, Spain’s by 8 points to 56 – confidence in Germany (92) remains notably higher. It was evident too that Portugal has not recovered from The Crisis with countless empty buildings in Lisbon. The tourism sector is providing the majority of new jobs. Many of them are low paying.

It is clear that basic services are being neglected. There is graffiti everywhere, even on some national monuments. That was particularly true in Portugal. When we arrived in Madrid, the street cleaners were on strike and the city was filthy. Even the Plaza Mayor was littered with trash. Neither visitors nor the citizenry will accept that situation for long.

There is no question that the most powerful person in Europe is not in Spain or Portugal but in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has assumed a position of leadership by default in protecting the European Union and its currency. We should not forget that our financial meltdown is what began this terrible cycle. While we have serious and continuing problems in many parts of the country, nothing compares to the suffering and difficulty I saw in Spain and Portugal.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Engineering at All Ages

By Ranada Robinson.

Although my son is only one year old, I find myself thinking about his educational options at least once a day. And not just where he will go for pre-K, but for elementary, middle, and high school as well. I can’t help it. When I purchased my house years ago, I wasn’t thinking anything about public school districts, and now that I have a child, I’m wondering if I will need to cross my fingers and toes that we will win a charter school lottery or if I should take out a loan so that I can afford private school. I am a data wonk and look at school performance for clients on a regular basis, so of course, I took a look at the statistics for the schools we’re zoned for, and frankly, they appear scary.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, with my colleague Christa Tinsley Spaht for a familiarization tour. There are several gems in this charming city, including their NEXT program (and its NEXT Innovation Center), the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (ICAR), and a bustling downtown full of yummy restaurants and activities for all ages. But what caught my eye was the AJ Whittenberg Elementary School. This “School of Engineering” opened in Fall 2010 and has a school-wide engineering curriculum and has engineering labs throughout – even the structure itself will be used to teach students about the importance of conservation and recycling. The students – who range from four-year-old Kindergarten to fifth grade – participate in regular hands-on experiential learning and engineering and science are incorporated across all subjects. It’s a former scientist’s dream! Best of all, it’s part of the downtown redevelopment effort and is a public school – not a magnet or charter school. The school is open to anyone in Greenville County on a first-come, first-served basis, and students do not have to meet any special criteria or win any lotteries to attend. I was in awe and left wondering if I can find a reason for Market Street to open an office in Greenville so that I can enroll my son there.

I’ve seen several examples of career academies as alternative high school models across the country, especially in communities that have clearly identified their targets and want to make sure they’re preparing homegrown talent for future jobs. I’ve also seen examples of middle school specializations. However, it’s not every day that we see communities start so early in the talent pipeline exposing children to STEM – engineering in particular – so wholly. So of course when I got back to our office, I did a little research to find out who else is engaging their elementary students at this level. Here is a sample of what I found:

The Sioux Falls School District, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has its Lowell Math, Science, and Technology Elementary School; Rosa Parks Global Studies/World Language Elementary School; and Eugene Field A+, which integrates fine arts into all instruction.

In Hartford, Connecticut, Capitol Regional Education Council Schools has its Academy of Aerospace and Engineering Elementary, which starts at the Pre-K level. The curriculum provides children with opportunities to conduct investigations, use the scientific method to solve problems, and gather information.

The Martha and Josh Morriss Mathematics and Engineering Elementary in Texarkana, Texas, works with Texas A&M University’s Texarkana College of Arts and Sciences and Education and College of Engineering. The facility is an important part of this school’s educational experience as well. Within their STEM learning pipeline, which includes middle school and high school, they offer a robotics program and there is a robotic competition at each educational level, including the FIRST LEGO League for grades 4 through 8.

The New York Times featured this article, “Studying Engineering before They Can Spell It,” in 2010, and the description of first grade students in New Jersey figuring out how to help a farmer keep rabbits out of his garden excited me. It is easy to see how this foundation can be built upon throughout their educational journeys and transformed into tangible careers that the kids can visualize and feel confident about. There are many organizations out there designing curricula, such as the Museum of Science in Boston and their Engineering is Elementary (EiE) program and partners of the National Science Foundation, and wanting to work with districts to develop engineering elementary schools, such as the American Society for Engineering Education.

I would love to talk to my son in a couple of years over dinner about his latest experiment. It’s never too early to expose kids to problem solving and critical thinking and even social skills including collaboration. Communities who embrace curricula that include such interactive and practical learning will surely reap the benefits in the long run.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chicken Little vs. Pollyanna

By Alex Pearlstein

When the subject of strategic planning comes up in a community, business leaders, public officials, and the media have a number of options in terms of how to spin the process. The area (be it city, county, or region) can approach it from a position of strength, as in, “We are seeing such success and achieving so many great things, we want to make sure we continue this momentum through proactive planning.” Or they could take a more pragmatic approach, “Things have not been going the way we’d like; our economy is faltering, our young people are leaving, and we have to do something now to turn this community around.” Or they could navigate a middle path with a little bit of “sky is falling” Chicken Little tempered by a dash of rose-colored-glasses Pollyanna.

What brings this balance to mind is an article from this month’s Cleveland Magazine in which the author wishes some in government and the media would be more realistic about how they portray each “next big thing” to be proposed in the city. Past history has shown that most projects that promised to be the catalyst to finally reverse the city’s fortunes have been more smoke than fire, more bluster than muster. Breathlessly touting every shiny new building or park or redevelopment initiative risks alienating a wary, we’ve-seen-this-before population before the project even has a chance to gain traction.

On the other side of the coin, constantly touting a community’s strengths and successes can create a sense of complacency in an electorate that might prevent it from supporting a truly beneficial project or initiative because they think that things are fine the way they are. Or that progress will continue without the need for new investment because of how awesome we are. “Companies come to us, we don’t need to pay them to come here (with incentives) or beg people to come (via talent marketing).” Unfortunately, communities that stand still and don’t continuously focus on how to improve and become more competitive are the ones that get passed by.

That middle approach – equal parts measurable reality and defensible boosterism – is probably the best path to tread. Above all, perspective is important. If a community’s population understands how competitive the economic development world is these days, they would probably be more likely to support, 1) a project to make them better, or 2) a project to keep them better. Even if there’s a cost related to public money or a one-time tax increase.

Perspective is everything nowadays. So towing that fine line between over-negativity and hyper-positivity could potentially make the difference between winning local support for a project or fighting a losing battle.