Nothing else needs to be said about the doom and gloom mindset offered to us by The 24, so let’s leave it here: It’s not warranted by the circumstances, although we have our challenges like everyone else. It’s not productive. We should move forward.
It’s time to define and discover a new mindset
It is easier, however, to tear down than to rebuild and replace. The same holds true for mindset – it is insufficient just to critique the mindset of The 24 without proposing an alternative. In my opinion, the mindset and corresponding action we need are captured by the term “Growth Footing.”
For context, consider the term War Footing, defined as “the condition or status of a military force or other organization when operating under a state of war or as if a state of war existed.” In such a condition, people, resources, and assets are utilized and optimized for the purpose of warfare. Similarly, our people, resources, and assets need to be utilized and optimized for the purpose of growth.
Growth Footing demands focus
Placing ourselves in a state of Growth Footing starts with clearly defining objectives. “Growing” is not sufficiently clear. Do we want to benchmark ourselves against Greenville? Chattanooga? Franklin? Somewhere else? Do we only want to increase the quantity of people? Do we want to increase median household income? Do we want to continue to enhance our status as a tourist destination? We have to be specific, which is yet another reason that participating in the current One Decatur comprehensive plan discussions is so important (if you didn’t have a chance to attend a workshop, make sure you are heard by leaving your feedback online here).
But someone has to propose something to start the conversation. My opinion is that we should focus efforts on creating an arts and outdoors community building a STEAM-based economy. If we only say we need to add “x” number of people, we beg the question of how we are going to do it. The rationale for this proposed direction:
- Arts and outdoors, because that narrative aligns with much of our tourist activity and helps us attract – and retain – people ranging from young professionals to seasoned highly skilled employees to retirees. Great employers follow clusters of such talent, and talent flocks to great employers, creating a virtuous cycle. We already have skilled talent and great employers – but we should never stop increasing those numbers.
- STEAM-based economy, because the larger economy is obviously evolving toward STEM, and we are one of the few communities that can make a credible run at a significant economic presence related to the arts. As a corollary, we should also invest significantly in bolstering the efforts already underway to strengthen a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. We must accomplish this for Decatur first, and then we will be in a position to contribute meaningfully to regional efforts as well.
A city people enjoy will attract more people
If we define and settle on an objective as a community, which is hard, the corresponding mindset is more personal. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what we need to do to achieve the objective. That might mean moving beyond some strategies or tactics that we have implemented for a long time. It might mean some high-profile endeavors…that do not succeed. It could mean trying things that are more difficult to execute and require more hard work. It will definitely mean getting outside of our comfort zones. It will definitely mean adopting a long-term perspective. It will definitely mean thinking big and acting accordingly. These dynamics can apply to each of us as individuals and to every business and organization that works for the betterment of Decatur. If we seek to scale the mountain, truly we must do so together.
Growth is challenging but achievable
Should we decide to pursue a state of Growth Footing by defining an objective, adopting a corresponding mindset, and comporting ourselves accordingly, we then get into the nuts and bolts of what to do. When I speak to people in places like Greenville or Chattanooga, they consistently emphasize some themes which, taken together, offer a framework for growth:
- Develop Key Real Estate: Big things like the Tennessee Aquarium usually happen on great pieces of real estate. To the extent possible, we need to be in a position to develop such real estate when prime opportunities present themselves.
- Dramatically Improve Internal Quality of Life: We have to keep building the place where we want to live before we can persuade others to come live here. Yes, there is work to do, but we are well on our way. See The Cook Museum for Natural Science, Alabama Arts Hall of Fame, River Clay, an emerging music scene, 307 Second lofts, etc. in addition to a low cost of living, great pace of life, and proximity to multiple major cities.
- Be the Place Employers Want to Go: We have to start here by recognizing that employers can go anywhere – believe me; many communities will welcome the jobs. Decatur needs to be the best place in the world to start, grow, or relocate a business and make it as easy as possible for those who recruit jobs here to pitch us as a viable destination. Our governmental policies, as well as statements by public officials, need to reflect that sentiment as often as possible. The era when America is the only economic game in town, when growth feels or is guaranteed, when technology is rarely zero sum, is over. We also need to continue investing in a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, especially as it relates to startups. We should determine which emerging industries we are best positioned to recruit (agricultural tech, drones, 3D printing, etc.) and align ourselves with their needs. We should also frequently assess and identify local employment needs and non-local but ascendant industries, then make sure we focus keenly on training the workforce they need. These things, in large part, are happening.
Downtown lofts are coming…
So, that’s how I define growth footing – setting a specific growth-oriented objective, adopting its corresponding mindset, and then going about the work of developing key real estate, improving our quality of life in dramatic ways, and constantly becoming more economically appealing to employers and employees. This is hard work, but it’s the only way to build a Decatur that will grow and prosper for the next 100 years. It also happens to be a tremendous privilege to undertake as well as a fulfilling, high impact use of our time. And, we can do it – what some consider to be improbable or impossible happens every single day…