Friday, June 27, 2014

To Des Moines with Love

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President. 

Recently, after living five years in Des Moines, Iowa, our family packed up and headed south to Macon, Georgia. Medical school for my wife at Des Moines University brought us from Atlanta to Des Moines, while a pediatric residency at the Medical Center of Central Georgia has brought us back, albeit an hour south of Atlanta to the largest city in the state’s central region. Macon is smaller than Des Moines (2012 metro population of 232,398 versus 588,999), the weather-oppressive season is summer instead of winter, the tea is sweeter, the speech twangier, and the college football more obsessive. We found a house in a quaint historic district in Macon fairly similar to our Des Moines neighborhood. For the most part, though, the communities are quite different. I look forward to learning Macon as I did Des Moines, from driving its streets, walking its neighborhoods, and meeting the people that know it best.

Both are Market Street client communities. While I managed the Capital Crossroads process for Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa, I am familiar with the One Macon strategy only from reviewing the reports. Capital Crossroads has been widely embraced by the region – over 500 volunteers have participated in its implementation – while One Macon is just out of the starting block and building its network of implementation partners. We have high hopes that the plan will move the region forward; I’m happy that I’ll have a front-row seat for the proceedings.

From both a personal and professional perspective, I owe a great debt to Des Moines. We adopted our lovely daughter Everly during our time there and my wife achieved her dream of becoming a doctor. We met some awesome people and experienced things unheard of for Los Angeles and Birmingham natives – fried sticks of butter at the Iowa State Fair, blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, a “farm crawl” of different family-owned operations, Beggar’s Night (Halloween is held on October 30 in Des Moines), and other wonders too numerous to mention. Seeing the current and ongoing growth and development of Downtown Des Moines, the East Village, the Western Gateway, Court Avenue, the Ingersoll corridor, and activity centers in suburban cities fed both my personal and professional passions.

Above all, however, living in Des Moines was a primer on the essence of successful communities. It confirmed and informed much that comprises my worldview on economic and community development and what drives success. Both my engagement in Capital Crossroads and my embeddedness as a resident and stakeholder provided a unique and focused lens on the day-to-day, action-by-action, person-by-person evolution of a thriving region. Despite the presence of large companies, impressive physical development, surprisingly diverse shopping, dining, and entertainment amenities, and beautiful natural environment, what makes Des Moines work is its people – most notably, its public and private leadership.

There is a synergy and synchronicity to decision-making and advancement of initiatives large and small that seem always calibrated to local and regional improvement. Most often, this synthesis extends beyond geographic boundaries and party affiliation to focus purely on what will make the place better. Some of the most vehement proponents of efforts to end homelessness were registered Republicans, while lead investors in complex land-swap and development deals were Democrats. Most often I was surprised to learn a leader’s political affiliation; in the grand scheme – though of course not always – these details were not relevant to the efficacy of public-private partnerships.

Though I heard it so much during Capital Crossroads public input that it almost became a mantra, leadership in Greater Des Moines really is eminently approachable and available to support efforts as ambitious as a sculpture park and quotidian as coffee with a new arrival to the region. My cynical brain eventually had to wrap itself around the fact that this was the truth of this place; leaders almost universally demonstrated allegiance and obligation to the community-at-large in addition to their companies. I’ll never forget the sight of one of the most powerful private leaders in Greater Des Moines sitting in a rickety folding chair in the dimly lit basement of a small inner city church passionately trying to convince the pastor to support Capital Crossroads. The pastor’s blessings wouldn’t have made or broken the initiative; it was just the right thing to do.

Once established, great leadership is self-sustaining. The expectations of new executives and elected officials are to maintain the high standard of leadership established by generations prior. One of the principal concerns of top public and private officials in Capital Crossroads was the development of the next cohort of leaders to move the region forward. What emerged is Community Connect (one of few formalized executive mentorship programs in the country). And these new leaders are emerging; too numerous to mention. Des Moines is increasingly a place that retains or “boomerangs” its top talent and can attract smart, ambitious folks from outside the region. I’m convinced that the presence of “new blood” and its fresh and different perspective is a de facto requirement of successful communities.

This account of metro Des Moines has definitely accentuated the positives. Does the region have challenges? Of course. Is every leader as civic-minded and forward-thinking as those I’ve mentioned? No. But, as a Market Street co-worker calls it, the “secret sauce” of Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa has reached critical mass. A new “top 10” ranking seemingly every week is testament that the corner has been turned. I look forward to watching the region continue to advance and evolve, albeit now from a distance.

And I hope to see some of these same qualities in Macon, Georgia. I’m happy to report that I’ve already found a place to get a great falafel. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The World Cup as Economic Development

By Matt DeVeau, Senior Project Associate.

At approximately 7:48 p.m. on Monday, Evan Robertson and I were soaked in cheap beer and hugging random strangers. A 21-year-old German American named John Anthony Brooks had just scored the winning goal in the dying moments of the United States men’s national soccer team’s 2-1 victory over Ghana in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and all who had gathered to watch the match in an impossibly crowded Atlanta bar were in hysterics. Bud Lights flew through the air. Societal norms about personal space were suspended. It was beautiful.

At home later that night, I relived the moment by watching “reaction” videos that fans from around the country had uploaded to YouTube. On a basic level, each of these clips is exactly the same – shaky cell phone imagery of a bunch of people wearing the American flag in creative ways losing their minds – but I watched about two dozen of them anyway. And that’s when I started to notice something else: a lot of these videos were shot outside in parks and other public spaces – see this item from the Los Angeles Times for the social media evidence. Some quick online digging revealed that at least a few of these events were offered by municipalities and other organizations as free community services. And so it was that I had an excuse to write about soccer on a economic, community, and workforce development blog.

We know from The Knight Foundation’s research that people’s “attachment” to a community is primarily driven by just three things: the community’s beauty, its openness to all types of people, and its social offerings. That last one can be roughly translated as “fun things to do,” and what happened in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on Monday night certainly fits that description. An estimated 8,000 people gathered for a massive watch party at SteelStacks, a former Bethlehem Steel plant and brownfield turned arts and entertainment district. The party was part of a larger, multi-day event, SoccerFest, that is a collaboration between a tourism organization (Discover Lehigh Valley), an arts nonprofit (ArtsQuest), and various other community organizations.

Based on the early returns, it probably couldn’t have gone much better for the organizers. In addition to the USA win, the community received invaluable free publicity, as ESPN elected to show live reaction shots from the party during the game; the images framed against the dramatic backdrop of the former steelworks were among the most memorable of the broadcast. And turnout was so good that ArtsQuest the next day announced that the festival, originally scheduled to wrap up on Sunday, June 22, would run all the way through the World Cup final on July 13.

There could be more benefits yet to come. Economic development is sometimes about wooing manufacturing plants or finding creative ways to re-use old ones. But at its core it is about people, the “talent” that is crucial to maintaining an edge in a fiercely competitive world. It is about making great communities. I can’t help but think that a Bethlehem resident who watched that game in that setting had to come away from the event saying, “I love living here.” Yes, this is economic development:

Monday, June 9, 2014

D-Day 2014

By J. Mac Holladay, Founder and CEO

June 6th marked 70 years since the combined forces of the United States, Britain, Canada, and France stormed the beaches in Normandy. I have walked those beaches and seen the wonderful American Memorial Park and Cemetery there. I was overwhelmed by the experience and the remembrances of all the French people living nearby. The rows and rows of chalk white headstones are almost too much to bear.

This day and what followed 70 years ago turned the tide of the war in Europe. It saved our way of life and freed Europe from Adolf Hitler. All of us should be eternally grateful for what those brave -soldiers did all those years go. While it is joyous to see the few remaining veterans return and celebrate their victory, their number is shrinking every day. There is a sadness that comes from that reality, as Rob Citino at the U.S. Army War College said, “The passing of veterans means that the event enters into the realm of history, and is no longer in the realm of personal experience.”

The planning and execution of what happened on the northern coast of France is almost beyond belief. It was by far the world’s biggest amphibious offensive. The U.S. and its Allies deployed 6,039 ships and 11,590 aircraft on that day. There were 156,000 troops deployed. Over 4,400 Allied troops were killed in action that day, nearly 2,500 Americans. There were over 14,600 flight missions. The night before, 10,000 paratroopers had dropped from 800 aircraft behind the landing areas to cut off the Germans who would retreat the next day. On D-Day another 15,000 Allied paratroopers dropped around the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. That city was the first liberated by our forces.

Perhaps the most touching scene for me this D-Day was 93 year-old Jim Martin parachuting again into France. After he landed, the reporters asked how it compared to 70 years ago. He quickly stated, “Oh this was easy, nobody was shooting at me.”

We should never forget what all the Jim Martins did that day so long ago.