Luke Flatt, president and CEO of AB&T in Albany, says he can already sense the positive feelings in Albany as economic conditions improve. (Staff Photo: Jim West)
ALBANY — In 1952, a famous comic strip opossum named Pogo made a profound statement: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Now, in its ongoing efforts to improve the overall mood and spirit of the area, the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission have seen the truth in those words and are working to correct the situation.
The EDC, 125 Pine Ave., is a public-private partnership charged with fostering new business investment and job creation through recruitment, retention and expansion of industry and business in Albany-Dougherty County area. While active employees of the organization, and its board of directions may represent the “spear tip” of many important projects, the essential key to real advancement lies in community and business support, said Barbara Rivera Holmes, ADEDC director of marketing and existing industries.
“I think we’ve seen the community realize just how important it really is to continue to support economic development, because it’s those efforts that help us be sustainable,” Holmes said. “There was a global downturn in 2008 and certainly we were hit hard by that. If we hadn’t had certain things in place, and a diversified economy, if we didn’t have support from our partners and the private business community and the city and county, it could have been much worse.”
That community support was exemplified recently when the Flint Riverquarium fell seriously short on funding, EDC officials say, coming closer to closing that most citizens realize. Recognizing the real value of the popular attraction, which has become identifiable with Albany, a group of unidentified community leaders stepped up to fill the gap.
In fact, over the past few years the city has made significant strides in sprucing up its image for new industry. One location where the improvement is instantly apparent is the riverfront area of downtown and the adjoining section of Pine Avenue.
“When you drive down Pine, just looking at the work they’ve done here, it changes your feeling about were you’re going,” Holmes said. “ I was at the riverfront with my daughter and we didn’t go to the playground because it was so full of kids. There were so many families out there enjoying the amenities, where five years ago there was no one there — even on a beautiful day.”
While such progress is a justifiable source of pride, in the summer of 2012 the EDC took a straight-on look at Albany and Dougherty County – warts and all – with its new SWOT, or strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats initiative, where three separate task forces were created, each consisting of around 30 “key community leaders,” EDC officials said.
One task force focuses on new business recruitment, the second on retention and expansion of existing industries while the third, the renewal task force, looks at the Albany area from a “higher altitude,” seeking out conceptual issues and the means to address them. According to Justin Strickland, interim president of the EDC, the renewal task force, chaired by Col. Don Davis, commandant of the Albany Marine Corps Logistics Base, and Miles Espy with Draffin and Tucker, uncovered a fundamental stumbling block in the city’s quest for further progress.
“Some key people in the group told us that Albany just doesn’t believe in itself,” Strickland said, “and what was needed was a ‘re-branding’ effort.”
To outsiders, it appeared most of the publicity about Albany was negative. Media leaders were asked to curtail allowing anonymous comments to be used. Several media outlets, including The Albany Herald, started requiring their website comments to be channeled through Facebook, where opinion posters would be required to include their identities and so become “somewhat more accountable” for what they say online, Strickland said.
“It’s a ‘grass is always greener’ kind of thing,” Holmes said. “We’re not unique. People will complain about their communities, but Albany is a product. You have to speak well about your product.”
The Herald also started The Brightside, a positive counterpoint to the popular Squawkbox.
“Honestly, we’ve worked with companies before who’ve said “I would relocate to Albany, but my employees visited the media websites and read the comments, and they don’t want anything to do with it,” Strickland said.
Going further with the “let’s like ourselves” initiative, the EDC recently commissioned Lattimer Communications, an Atlanta-based advertising firm, to act as an “outside eye” to help the city see itself more clearly, Strickland said. One early upshot of that partnership is a professionally produced video aimed at reminding residents why Albany is called The Good Life City.
For a little more than two minutes, the voiceless video throws a spotlights on many of the area’s strong points, including the Flint Riverquarium and the river itself, visitors to Chehaw park and zoo, the Albany Symphony, the Civil Rights Museum, the State Theater, ASU and Darton State College, as well as Albany’s agricultural, medical and industrial base. The We Are Albany video is available for viewing at the EDC or the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, Strickland said, and is offered for inclusion on company websites.
Luke Flatt, president and CEO of ABT National Bank in Albany, and renewal task force member, loves the video. He said it encourages community members to realize the many advantages offered in Albany, and to spend more time “saying something good”about them.
“We can say that we’re the Good Life City, but if the people don’t believe that, then those are hollow words,” Flatt said. “We have to change our internal perception. When we can do that, the sky’s the limit.”
Flatt says the economy has been improving recently, locally and throughout the state, and as situations get better and people speak more positively about the city, the difference is apparent.
“I already sense it,” Flatt said. “If we believe, in Albany, that we’re as good as other people outside Albany believe we are, then we can really make a difference.”