Monday, November 16, 2009

Gwinnett Chamber Strategic Leadership Visit: Leaders Return with a Regional Outlook

Regionalism. That is the buzz word that arose from the Gwinnett Chamber’s fourth Strategic Leadership Visit in the ‘Mile High City.’ The 2009 Denver trip, which took place in late September, marked the fourth such trip the Chamber has planned for the county’s and region’s leaders in government, business, and education. The purpose of the Chamber’s Strategic Leadership Visit is to take a select group of both Gwinnett’s and the region’s leaders to other metro counties and regions to explore innovative ideas and programs which have helped to build partnerships to impact positive community change. This also fulfills an important ongoing objective of the community’s Partnership Gwinnett long-term economic and community development strategy.

“For 2009, we choose Denver because of its resilience to bounce back after busts and booms in the economy, including the oil bust in the 1980s,” said Gwinnett Chamber Vice President of Communications and Public Policy Demming Bass. “The fact that many of the region’s most successful initiatives came out of this crisis can serve as an inspiration for Gwinnett and metro Atlanta as we weather one of the worst economic recessions in decades.”

The way in which Denver bounced back with its regional approach left the biggest impression on the leaders who attended the trip. Throughout the Strategic Leadership Visit, Gwinnett’s leaders heard from Denver-area city and county leaders who achieved economic stability and growth by doing what is best for the region rather than limiting their focus to their own community.

“Through Partnership Gwinnett’s cooperative mindset that regional approach is already in play. Gwinnett is taking the lead with this new way of doing business,” said Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District Executive Director Joe Allen. “During the Denver trip, all of the stakeholders that we heard from noted this model of cooperation among the local communities working as one to improve infrastructure, seek funding solutions, and plan for future growth. They truly realize each one’s success is dependent on the success of the other.”

Previous visits to Fairfax County, Virginia, Collin County, Texas, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina have exposed participants to a wide range of ideas and practices for economic and community development. Equally important, the visits have created new networks among business and civic leaders in Gwinnett and metro Atlanta – connections vital for implementing lessons learned upon return to Georgia.

Past visits have greatly influenced a number of Gwinnett success stories including the creation of Partnership Gwinnett, the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, the Gwinnett Braves Stadium, and the current pursuit of the tollway for the Ronald Reagan Parkway Extension.

So, what did attendees bring back from this year’s trip to Denver? While Gwinnett and metro Atlanta will never have the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and certainly not the low humidity levels that bring many people and businesses to the Mile High City, Gwinnett may see changes in areas where revitalization is needed, a peaceful co-existence between roads and transit, and new business and education partnerships aimed at increasing completion rates and access to career choice for our future workforce.

During the tour of the Belmar redevelopment in Lakewood, Colorado, Gwinnett’s leaders learned about the Denver region’s strong public-private partnerships that allowed for the conversion of a dying mall into a new urban downtown center. The city officials had an attitude of “let’s make this work” rather than the normal “follow the rules” mentality of government. The importance of allowing “out-of-the-box” rules and regulations and tax increment funding were an important part of the equation that made Belmar and the Town Center at Aurora possible.

“During the Belmar tour, what I saw before me was a complete integration of retail, employment, residential and cultural venues on the footprint of a former interior mall about the size of the Gwinnett Place Mall area,” said Allen. “We would do well to further explore this model and bring the various private and public decision makers to the table to determine Gwinnett Place Mall’s long-term direction and strategy for continued success. This step is something the CID has already begun to do with various meetings scheduled with local property owners.”

Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister was particularly impressed with Denver’s regional approach to transportation. “Denver reinforced the notion that we need a regional approach to solve our transportation issues,” said Bannister. “As Chairman, I serve the people and businesses of Gwinnett, but I also serve the people who commute from surrounding counties to Gwinnett. It is important to remember this as we discuss transportation.”

Chairman Bannister and fellow business and community leaders learned about several different transportation models that would be interesting for Gwinnett to consider. One model is Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) where the governing body of the RTD includes representation from throughout the region, and no one area of the region (including the City of Denver) dominates the RTD. Denver’s model for funding its FasTracks and T-Rex transportation initiatives are also worth considering as we debate how to increase state funding here in metro Atlanta and Georgia. Gwinnett leaders also learned about the peaceful co-existence between roads and transit when they heard from one of the presenters who said “While it is true that roads alone are not the answer, Roads are not the enemy.”

Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District Executive Director Chuck Warbington was equally impressed with Denver’s regional approach to solving transportation issues. “The idea of tackling issues from a regional standpoint instead of individually was the biggest lesson that I learned on the trip,” said Warbinton. “One initial way to solidify relationships and work together is through better planning and funding for transportation and transit projects on a regional level that connects employment centers across the Atlanta metro area.”

A new initiative may be born from what Gwinnett leaders learned from their lesson on The Adams County Consortium, which was created a few years ago in partnership between Adams
County Economic Development and all local educational systems from K-12 to colleges. In less than five years, more than 5,100 students have attended its Career Expo and 1,000 went through its “Experience 9 to 5” mentoring program.

“The result of this program for Denver has been increased overall successful completion rates for secondary and post-secondary students with increased access to career choices in local industry,” said Bass. “The ‘9 to 5’ program impressed everyone on the trip so much that there are already plans to implement the program in Gwinnett.”

What’s Next
While it may be too early to measure the ideas elicited and successes gained from the Chamber’s trip to Denver, these areas mentioned left a big impression on attendees and will surely help to direct the Gwinnett area’s and the region’s future.

“The regional cooperation between the cities in metro Denver made it possible for huge transportation projects, attracting seven professional sports teams, and an array of arts and cultural amenities,” said City of Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson. “We have had similar success with Partnership Gwinnett, which has made it possible to keep and attract businesses, support education, and develop arts and cultural programs. This trip has inspired all of us take another step forward and reinforced the importance of regional thinking.”

For more information on the Strategic Leadership Visit,
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