Let’s start this third and final installment of The Mindset Chronicles by acknowledging we could choose not to prepare for Decatur’s future. That’s an option. We can just live self-contained lives and whatever happens to Decatur, just happens. In that context, Decatur is just a place you live, not a place for which you have any sense of greater responsibility. Our future will be what it will be – maybe we grow, or hollow out, or neither. And that will be that. Many cities are choosing this course.
Some cities do not prepare for the future
But what if we commit ourselves to building a Decatur that could thrive and grow for the next 100 years? What if our community places itself on growth footing? What could happen? What could it look like? What could it feel like?
Already one of the only places to be named a top destination nationally for engineers and retirees, Decatur will be branded as one of the few cities in the nation that successfully merges an arts and outdoors culture with a low cost of living, sane pace of life, access to great jobs, proximity to multiple big cities, and milestone projects like the Cook Museum of Natural Science and the Alabama Center for the Arts. Note these characteristics position us well in a culture that is increasingly focused on experiences not commodities, that is wary of debt, that is seeking a sustainable pace. We won’t be a fit for everyone, but for those who are tired of me-too, cookie-cutter culture and want something distinctive and authentic, we’ll get serious consideration. We’ll also get a look from those who want to know their neighbors and live in community with others – who hope they have someone to call for help when it’s time to move the heavy table to another room on Saturday morning. Meanwhile, beautification won’t be a priority. It will be a minimum standard. A constant, vibrant buzz will characterize our culture, and somebody will always be dreaming up what to do next. In many respects, this is already happening.
Decatur may be the only city nationally to be a top destination for engineers and retirees
We’ll continue to learn to get along inside a broader culture that has tended toward isolation for the last several decades. Building relationships usually involves some challenges, and we will struggle some yet continue to find ways to live together. Some will pursue this course because they do not wish to spend their entire lives fighting with groups of people they haven’t even met. For others it will be a matter of personal faith. Still others will point out that cities that don’t get along won’t grow economically. Those cities end, and the experience of 1,000 places right now is proving it. Try getting the high-growth employers of today and tomorrow to move the families of their leadership and employees to a city that is at war with itself – lack of unity leads to a lack of prosperity. We, however, will be a city that becomes a case study as other cities, indeed as our country, wrestles mightily to move forward together and create a widely shared, credible sense of hope and opportunity for ourselves and for our children.
Uplifting events like the Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic can bring people together
Decatur will continue to honor our history and be an innovative city. When we say “innovation,” we won’t mean that we host endless conferences, lectures, and so forth. While such events have meaning, we will become a practical hub of innovation because we decided who we want to be – whether that’s arts, outdoors, startups, or something else – and then we continuously tried new and exciting things in all those areas. We won’t mind copying others when it makes sense, but our goal will be for others to copy us. We’ll create spaces and districts for innovation that don’t think inside or outside the box – because whether you’re talking about the 40-hour workweek, the traditional paths to upward mobility, or the role technology will play in our lives through artificial intelligence or virtual reality or big data, what’s clear is most of the boxes we’ve known are gone. They are currently being rebuilt.
We will be a city that is open for business, aspiring to be the best place in the world to start, grow, or relocate a company. We will go out of our way to thank our employers for being here and show appreciation in our words and our policies, because we’ll understand that no community is entitled to jobs and that jobs are the indispensable factor necessary to build a strong city, support those who are hurting, and pursue nonprofit endeavors. Travel to a few cities that lack good jobs and see how their other sectors are faring. We’ll continue efforts to diversify our economy and train a workforce that is relevant both locally and to employers in large, fast-growing industries. Through entities in the area like the Alabama Robotics Technology Park, we will lead on these fronts. We’ll build a startup culture over time and become one of the first mid-sized cities to see a string of significant tech exits. Kids will come out of nowhere and sell an app, and the next thing you know they will be co-chairing a major philanthropic event. Meanwhile, one of their friends will see this and get to work on another app, knowing the first eight may fail yet knowing that this only brings success that much closer…
If the robot invasion is upon us, then let’s be the ones to build and repair them
We will invest significantly in our education, safety, and healthcare infrastructure because we understand that’s what keeps people in a city after you attract them. In all three categories we will encourage innovation and risk-taking, driven by a moral obligation to prepare every child for the global economy, protect all citizens, and serve our sick and infirm. These investments will ultimately benefit all of us and enhance our quality of life.
Even as we brand ourselves and sharply define our identity to forge our future, we won’t forget who we are or apologize for it. We won’t try to please everybody. And we won’t try to become exactly like some other city. We’ll remember what makes us, us. The Dragon Boat races. The river. A Christmas parade with an Elf theme. The Princess. Our sports rivalries. Point Mallard. Jack Allen. Delano. Our Downtown. Our restaurants. Our extensive nonprofit network that cares for and serves those otherwise unacknowledged, forgotten, ignored. The Spirit of America Festival. Did I mention our sports rivalries?
How can you not like an Elf-themed Christmas parade?
If we pursue this course, we won’t succeed every time. Institutions we’ve come to know and love may not always survive if they do not adapt. We will work for long stretches without “wins.” Even harder will be the near misses. We’ll get frustrated. Of course the doom and gloom crowd will be primed and ready to take these opportunities to reinforce their core message – that it is a complete waste of time to try at all. We probably will not accomplish each and every goal we set if we are setting high goals worth achieving.
Don’t be shocked when the going gets tough
But consider what it means not to try at all – it means we will have wasted our opportunity to lay the foundation to help Decatur thrive in the future. It means being held accountable for our stewardship of this place by future generations. It means losing the chance to build and create what might have been, instead silently wondering what could have been. Fundamentally, it means passively, lazily consigning ourselves and future generations to whatever happens when you stop building for the future. Generally the outcome is not pretty.
So, there is the question of what could happen if we commit to our future. There is the question of whether we should commit to our future. And then there is the question of why we should commit to our future. The answer to that question is not abstract; it’s personal. Decatur is the city where many of us grew up, learning about ourselves and others while experiencing life in this world and developing faith, or beliefs, or philosophies. It’s the city where people have moved and jumped in to make life here better for all of us. It’s the city where families have scraped and fought to build a life. Where we have experienced gain and loss. It’s that street you can’t drive by without a quiet laugh because you still remember what happened that night. It’s respect for our elders. It’s me feeling like I need to turn off the radio and take a breath when I drive by Roselawn Funeral Home, as it again reminds me that Sunday lunch with my parents is no longer possible, before returning to our family home where my wife and I now do our level best to negotiate the ups and downs of real life and raise two young, wonderful children. It’s looking at those young professionals who are trying to get involved and contribute and wondering what we can do to encourage them to commit for the long haul, asking how we can we empower them to help build this city. This is the city where we are committing literally everything we have – our time. It is the place where the story of your life is being written, where your past, present, and future collide each day and intersect in a thousand different ways. We can talk all day about jobs and infrastructure and other important concepts, but at the end of the day this is personal for us and that’s all there is to it.
Mom and Dad
It’s a good thing this is personal for all of us, because no single human being is going to be able to wave some magic wand and build a place that endures. This misplaced cult of personality is a byproduct of the “I’ll live my life and someone else should make this place amazing for me” mindset. No. Communities are collections of individuals, and in a free society they rise or fall together. Instead, we are going to have to build our futures one day at a time, in our homes, in our organizations, in our government, in our businesses. And there’s no mistaking it – striving to build a future is a risk – but it’s one worth taking, and at this point in our history the biggest mistake we can make is taking no risks at all. That has to be the attitude we adopt if we are to live well today and spend 2017 and beyond building for tomorrow, and I believe it is the path we are choosing and will choose until that day when our dreams become our reality.