A group of city leaders boarded a plane this week and flew west to Denver looking for new ideas and ways to make Columbus and the region a better place to live and attract business and talent.
There were key leaders you would expect such as Columbus Mayor-elect Skip Henderson, Muscogee County School District Superintendent David Lewis, Georgia Power Southwest Regional Director Jason Cuevas, Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor, Chattahoochee Valley Community College President Jackie Screws and Columbus City Manager Isaiah Hugley.
But scattered among the city’s senior leadership was a group of young people, many of them under 35 and beginning to assume critical leadership roles in the community.
They were noticed and they were not timid about expressing opinions and being a part of the process.
Historic Columbus Foundation Preservationist Justin Krieg, 37, has lived in Columbus for 10 years and has emerged as one of the young leaders interested in development and looking for different ways to grow Columbus. He has been on multiple intercity visits and said the youth movement on this trip was obvious just by looking at the group.
“There is less gray hair and more hair,” Krieg said lightheartedly. “... What you see is different clothes, different perspectives. And I think it’s good for the older crowd to experience that. We kind of sit in our little groups and don’t branch out. This forces you to do that.”
This is the 25th consecutive year the Chamber of Commerce has sponsored the trip that takes a group of people in key positions to another community to look at potential areas for improvement in Columbus. In Denver, the focus was on regionalization, downtown redevelopment, and turning struggling areas of a city into productive and viable parts of the community.. The cost to attend was $2,750 per person and it was paid by businesses, organizations, non-profits and some local foundations.
About 30 of the 140 people on the trip were 35 or younger, according to Amy Bryan, the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce executive vice president for community development and growth. Many of the emerging leaders have come out of the chamber’s Young Professionals program, which grew out of an intercity visit to Tampa a decade ago.
One of the next-generation leaders who is emerging is Miles Greathouse, co-owner of three Columbus businesses — Maltitude, a downtown beer store; Nonic, a downtown restaurant; and Jarfly, a restaurant in the city’s Midtown area that will open in the coming weeks. All three of those businesses have been started within the last five years.
Greathouse was soaking in Denver, its beautiful weather and attractiveness to outdoor-minded people, but he also was thinking about home.
“At first it’s tough to see the parallels between Denver and Columbus, but then you begin to realize that everybody is trying to achieve the same things,” he said. “They want good jobs, they want quality growth and they want to take care of their community.”
Greathouse, clearly more hip than a lot of those on the trip, opting for collarless shirts and headbands, also brought a different perspective to the group.
“This was a really cool mesh of people,” he said. “They came from so many different backgrounds. And I think that’s important for all of us.”
Henderson, the Columbus mayor-elect who got involved in city government first on the Golf Authority and then as a city councilor starting in his 30s, said he was impressed with the young people he interacted with on the trip.
“They are entrepreneurially minded,” Henderson said “And what’s exciting about that is they are taking an interest in building the Columbus that they want to live in.”
“What we are finding out is that many of the young folks not only have the capacity and the skill set to be leaders, they also have the want-to and desire to step into leadership positions.,” Henderson said.
One of those working to build the Columbus she wants to see is Hayley Henderson, no relation to the mayor-elect.
At 28, the Harris County native and 2008 graduate of Harris County High School is in a critical leadership role in Columbus. A year ago, she was named the executive director of the Columbus Convention and Trade Center
, which is owned by the state of Georgia and operated by a city oversight board. It is the region’s largest convention space.
Henderson looks at the role of the young and emerging leaders in a little different way than someone older might.
“I think it’s important for youth to understand that they have to take risks and they have to take risks not in a negative way, but in a way where they believe in themselves,” she said. “A lot of times people will look at age, they will look at gender. They will look at all the outside appearances instead of truly seeing the talent and strengths that a young person can bring to the table.”
Being young is a good thing in a key leadership position, she pointed out.
“It brings new ideas and it allows people to see things from a different perspective,” Henderson said. “There is always that saying, ‘If it isn’t broke, why try and fix it?’ Well, yeah it might not be broke, but you might have something that can help the city grow. You might have something instead of doing the same thing year after year, why not add some excitement? Why not let people know how great Columbus is?”
Building trust is crucial
The young leaders have to gain and build trust with the community’s senior leaders, Hayley Henderson said. This trip offers an opportunity to start that process.
“You have systems that work well and change can be scary and it can be hard,” she said. “I’m not saying we are coming in as a younger generation to change everything, but it’s being able to trust new thinking for a system to grow. The Trade Center is successful, but how can we make it grow to something we have never seen before?”
During a debriefing session with the entire group Friday morning, Henderson used her time to talk about the need for additional convention hotel rooms to allow the Trade Center to attract more and larger conventions.
“If I can have more downtown hotel rooms, I can attract larger conferences to come, stay in those hotels, experience our shopping,” she said. “At the end of the day, more hotel rooms would transform the city of Columbus.”
That’’s exactly the kind of engagement that encourages people like David White, 71, Troy University’s vice chancellor.
“It’s important that we have a mechanism in our community to grow our internal talent,” he said. “The intercity tour is one of those points in the year when we can gather the leadership of our community together, go to a city where some things are being done well and figure out how to put some of those things to work for us. I think it’s critical that the younger leadership in our community becomes a part of that. We need to start preparing the younger leadership to take over from the rest of us.”
White said the young leaders are stepping forward and will continue to step forward.
“A lot of leaders in our future are here, a lot of them are out at Fort Benning, and we just don’t realize it yet,” he said.
One participant who had an interesting take on leadership and a view of his civilian counterparts was Army Lt. Col. Jamie Uptgraft, 43. He is responsible for the Captains Career Course at Fort Benning. A career officer with multiple deployments in the Global War on Terrorism, Uptgraft has spent years studying, learning and teaching leadership under fire in the military. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later taught military tactics there.. The course he now oversees at Fort Benning is tasked with producing career Army leaders.
Leadership in the civilian world can be different, Uptgraft admitted, but the basic foundation is the same.
“Leadership is leadership,” he said. “There are different ways to get at it. It doesn’t really matter the age or the sex, as human beings we want great leadership. It’s essential to our success.”
Homegrown leaders bring value
Unlike Uptgraft, many of the younger leaders in Columbus today are homegrown.
John Hudgison, who at 35 is in charge of the Building and Code Enforcement Department for the city of Columbus, is one of those leaders who wants to make a difference in his hometown. A 2001 Carver High School graduate, Hudgison left Columbus to attend college at the University of Tennessee, but returned home with a degree in architecture and a minor in urban planning. He has worked for the city nine years, first in the Engineering Department as a project manager, and in his current job for two years.
“Young people can be a driving force,” Hudgison said. “Sometimes we don’t have the experience to know if something is a good idea or not. But being a Columbus native I want to make my hometown better.”
Hudgison, who has 8- and 3-year-old boys, points to ways the community is already improved from when he was growing up in Columbus.
“We have a splash pad, we have rails to trails, things that my kids enjoy,” he said.
Hudgison was one of the participants who did not just stick to the regimented leadership conference schedule. He broke away and met with top building and codes officials from the city of Denver and Jefferson County.
“That was important to me,” he said. “They are moving to e-permitting and that’s something we are looking at. I was able to talk to them about it and hear their experiences.”
Trips like this also help strengthen relationships that are already there. Hudgison assists with coordinating leadership development programs for city employees and Hayley Henderson is one of the speakers he uses regularly.
“It’s important to have people like Hayley speak,” Hudgison said. “You are not looking at someone who has gray hair, but she is youthful and she is in an important position in our city.”
While in Denver, the Columbus group heard Colorado Gov. John W. Hickenlooper speak. He is an example of someone who stepped into leadership roles after being a successful restaurant owner-operator in downtown Denver. He ran for mayor and that was the springboard to the governor’s office in 2010. He now is being mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.
As mayor of Denver, Hickenlooper pushed for regionalization and cooperation with Denver’s suburban communities and leaders.
“What many thought was bad politics turned out to be good politics,” he said. “The urban areas have a responsibility to help the rural areas succeed.”
Many of the young people on the chamber trip don’t see the geopolitical lines that divide the Chattahoochee Valley by city, county and state.
“It doesn’t matter that the teacher of the year from Muscogee County lives in Smiths Station,” said White, who was talking about Melanie Gouine. “No one checks your passport when you cross the 13th Street bridge.”
Gouine, a 29-year-old fourth-grade teacher at North Columbus Elementary School, was sponsored on the trip by the Fort Foundation. .
It was a different environment from which Gouine has operated as a teacher for the last seven years. She, too, has seen the youth movement on this trip.
“You just get to see into their worlds and their backgrounds and take different pieces of what everybody is doing and try to apply it to your own area,” she said. “Our city offering these kinds of opportunities to young people keeps them involved and it will be great for our community and our future.”
The group spent a good deal of time in the River North, known as “RiNo,” area of Denver. It’s a one-square-mile industrial area that has been revitalized into an arts district that is attracting many young people as a place to live and play with its combination of renovation of old buildings and new construction.
It is something that people in Columbus would like to see happen in City Village, the mill district between downtown north to the Bibb City area along the Chattahoochee River. But, again, it will take younger, engaged leadership input to help make that happen.
Muscogee County Library Foundation Executive Director Laura Ann Mann, 31, was making her second intercity trip, having gone to Greenville, S.C., a couple of years ago. She is quickly becoming one of those younger, engaged leaders intent on making things happen.
“I see the benefits of this as two-fold,” she said of the conference. “First, we get to be with a group of people who care about Columbus. The bus rides, the plane rides, even the meals allow you to talk to and get to know those who care about Columbus. That’s important. But, too, it is to really learn what is working for a city and what we can bring back to make Columbus better.”
Mann, who worked as a television reporter for WTVM and in community relations for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter after returning to the area with a University of Georgia journalism degree, noticed the larger number of young people on this year’s trip.
“I have seen a shift the last couple of years — maybe you call it taking a chance — with Columbus giving younger people a chance at more leadership roles,” she said. “We have some executives in there who are in their 20s and 30s. Hayley is an example of that. We are trying to show them that we care about Columbus and we are going to stay and be here for the long haul.”
Mann also addressed one of the issues that is important to the city’s older leaders, which is trying to make Columbus a place that will attract young people who want to live and raise families in the community.
“A lot of us grew up here and said, ‘We are never coming back’,” Mann said. “And we ended up coming back. Thank goodness I did. I am so glad that my husband and I have decided to make this home. I think that’s where we both realized it is not the Columbus or not the Harris County that we grew up in.”
But the trip is more than just the obvious. It is also about networking and building relationships that will be critical for many years to come, Krieg said.
“You get to spend three or four days with a mix of leadership, in close company in a very relaxed setting,” he said. “You don’t want to raise your hand in a board meeting and ask a perceivably dumb question. But this is an environment where you can ask, ‘Why is this done this way’ to senior leadership in Columbus.”
In her previous job, Hayley Henderson worked for a company that set up large conventions across the country. Though she may be local, she brings a much broader perspective to her job managing the Trade Center and to making Columbus a better place.
“There was always a time when people would ask, ‘Where are you from’?” she said. “I would say Columbus, Georgia. They would usually respond, ‘You mean Columbus, Ohio.’ No, not with this accent (she would tell them) ... I want Columbus, Georgia to become a top-of-the-mind idea and a way of doing that is breaking away from the norm we have always done. I am not saying don’t keep some of the great traditions that make us who we are, but also trying new ideas to make the city grow.”