Leaders meet at 'All Together Albany'

ALBANY -- Leaders from nearly every facet of life in the Albany area gathered this week in hopes of moving forward with an ambitious plan to pull the city and county through some of the toughest socio-economic times since the Great Depression.

Organized and hosted by the Albany-Area Chamber of Commerce, 20 or so leaders from nearly every area of life in the area were present, including leaders of healthcare, business, public safety and government.

The goal of the meeting, Chamber President Catherine Glover said, was to rejuvenate local movers and shakers to get behind an effort that was started in 2008 when a study was completed that identified goals for the area to move forward and which ultimately led to the strengthening of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission and the invigoration of the chamber as its own, standalone entity.

"We wanted to pull together the people who are best in a position to move this community forward and establish clear goals and clear responsibility so that this movement doesn't stall," Glover said. "And we're on our way."

During a five-hour meeting Wednesday, the group reviewed the materials presented in the 2008 Market Street Study which ultimately focused on two main goals: Transforming the local economy and transforming the local community.

Under those two areas were lists of subgroups that were assigned to a lead agency that would collaborate with others in the community to best move those areas forward.

Many of the areas have already been addressed through initiatives begun by the chamber and the EDC, but some areas, like lowering poverty and teenage pregnancy rates, infrastructure development and the concept of bridging the race gap, had not been adequately assessed.

Now known as the All Together Albany Plan, much of the discussion Wednesday centered around how to deal with the city and county's chronic poverty while accentuating the area's positive attributes in hopes of fighting what moderator Dennis Epps from the University of Georgia said was the area's "self-esteem issue," which some at the table Wednesday said is hurting local business' attempts to recruit qualified and skilled labor.

"In many ways we're our own worst enemy," Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital delegate Tom Sullivan said. "We have to convince ourselves that we can overcome our problems."

Former Albany Mayor Tommy Coleman told the group that hurdles to progress are the factions that have developed within the community who benefit from the bad news generated throughout city and who ignore positive facts and harp on the city's weaknesses.

"We are as fractured as we have ever been," Coleman said. "We have meetings where people are calling each other 'jackasses,' and other names. It's a period of confrontation. We can't improve our economic development until that confrontation ends."

EDC Chairman Bobby McKinney said that new age, online media has given anyone and everyone with an opinion access to share it with the world whether it's based in fact or not.

"We are getting our eyes beat out online because we're being out blogged," McKinney said. "We need to be encouraging our business owners to get online and blog about things in their lives and particularly their successes so that when people do research online of the area they see that as well."

County Commission Jeff Sinyard urged those in attendance to present the positives whenever people are spouting off solely on the area's negatives and to correct those whose facts are wrong.

"We need to turn a negative into a positive whenever we can," Sinyard said.

Glover said that the Chamber will be focused on what she called aggressive, guerilla marketing to actively pitch the positives of living in Albany.

"There are a lot of good things going on here in this community and we have a lot of a good people who are doing a lot of work. We do have some challenges to work on, but a lot of the good work is being drowned out by a few negatives."

With Albany being named on Forbes Most Impoverished Cities list, the group focused also on poverty, calling it one of the single most inhibiting factors to obtaining individual success in Albany and Dougherty County.

One way to do that, the group offered, was to urge for the creation of a list of legitimate non-profits so that those of the 650 non-profit entities in Dougherty County who are aren't true charities aren't stealing dollars away from legitimate non-profits.

Dwayne Miles, of the United Way, said that of the more than 600 non-profits, 200 or so may not actually serve a charitable purpose and that the Chamber should develop a clearinghouse of the ones that are legitimate.

Joe Najjar, of Albany Tech, who was the only representative of higher education present at the meeting, said his organization was renewing focus on adult literacy, which he said was key to helping maintain a skilled workforce and recruit high paying jobs.

"I fully believe that the best social program is a good job and you can't get that without literacy skills," Najjar said.

Glover also unveiled new initiatives aimed at bridging the race gap and changing the perception of the Chamber in the black community from one of a white, elitist organization, to one who is interested in promoting one color: green.

"We simply want people to know that we all understand the color of green," Glover said. "We're doing that by focusing on small business and hosting listening sessions in the black community. It's taken a full year to get in and prove we're anything but a white, elitist organization."

At the end of the session, Glover said that they had largely accomplished their goal of taking the next step in moving forward towards progress for the city.

"It's not something that will happen overnight," Glover said. "But we have a dialog and we have commitment from people in different sectors of the community to focus and continue moving forward."