Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
In traveling to cities throughout the country it seems as though there’s a common denominator that I generally find. No matter where I go, many people tend to think that they have the most dysfunctional local government and the most negative local media. Having been in the private sector, the public sector, and having spent a stint as part of the media in hosting a daily talk radio show, I’ve been fortunate to garner a unique understanding of this mindset and how it can be proactively addressed at the local level.
In reality, every government has some form of dysfunction, just like any other organization. I’ve witnessed firsthand the damaging effects of organizational politics in the private sector which, more often than not, simply don’t make the front page of the paper or the six o’clock news. With regards to local media, or media in general, the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality is entrenched pretty much every place you go. The old journalistic aphorism “if a dog bites a man it's not a headline but if a man bites a dog it is” remains true and is something that’s not going to change overnight, if ever. These points being made, I would like to submit that communities should never allow ourselves to become completely defined by our politics or our media.
Here in Augusta I’ve often heard it said that our city will never reach its full potential until we get beyond our dysfunctional local politics. However, I’ve often made the point that transformative change in cities is almost always led by the private sector as opposed to local government. Simply put, governments aren’t in the business of vision building and innovating on a daily basis. Governments are there to provide services to the best of their ability to local citizens. Having served in local government for nine years, I came to understand the inherent difficulty of coalescing local elected officials around a road map to the future when so much time is spent putting out fires and responding to rapid fire constituent concerns.
Locally, we are now seeing a renaissance in growth and development largely driven by the relocation of U.S. Army Cyber Command to Fort Gordon here in Augusta. Just this last week we celebrated the opening of the $100 million Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Center for Innovation and Training which represents the largest investment in a cybersecurity facility by a state government to date. The effort to bring the center here represents how the private sector can help provide the vision for transformative change to the public sector. Local business leaders Jim Hull and Will McKnight took the lead on presenting the vision to Governor Nathan Deal who supported it fully while seeing the vision brought forward to fruition. To its credit, our local government invested $16 million in the project helping to make what started out as a vision a tangible reality.
Another fine example of the private sector working with the public sector here locally is our gateway beautification program through the Garden City Improvement Fund. Almost completely funded by local business leader Barry Storey and supported by our local government, the gateway program has resulted in beautifully landscaped and maintained entrances into Augusta. I’ve always believed in the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The first impression visitors now have of the Garden City has been dramatically improved by the program. Once again, the private sector provided a vision, along with funding, which was then supported by the public sector.
The resulting impact of all of this good news has helped to create a local media buzz which has contributed to a much more positive news cycle. In the process, much of our local media’s often hyper-focus on local governmental issues has been shifted due to a vast amount of content being generated from big announcements being driven by the private sector. In order to gain more traction for these stories, I take every opportunity possible to share them with a national audience through Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, leveraging their impact well beyond our local media market.
In the end, it is my firm belief that transformational change within cities can best be achieved with a renewed focus on enlightened self-interest at all levels. When the private sector sets a vision which is subsequently supported by the public sector, great things can be achieved, creating an inertia which is hard for anyone, including the press, to ignore. In a world of often diminishing resources, our local business communities partnering with our local governments at a heightened level is the best possible scenario in order to truly fulfill the potential of any city.
I also believe that success can easily be leveraged to lift our cities to greater heights. A tangible example of this occurred several weeks ago when I received an unsolicited call from a multi-family real estate developer who lives near Silicon Valley. She shared with me that she had heard a buzz about Augusta and wanted to know more about what was going on in our community. After an hour long discussion, she stated that she and her husband definitely intend to invest in Augusta and I can guarantee you they’ll find the real estate values much more palatable than what they’re used to at home. I was reminded in that moment that a rising tide truly does lift all boats. A growing and thriving community ultimately has a positive impact on the bottom line of all sectors, including the citizens who choose to call it home.