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The Art of Changemaking & Why Your City Should Be a Start-Up

March 10, 2016  |  Deke Copenhaver
Having spent nine years serving as mayor of Augusta, Georgia, while at the same time studying the workings of cities both at home and abroad, I’ve become convinced of a simple fact: cities, like any other organization, are either moving forward or moving backward. There simply is no way for the places we choose to call home to stand still in a global economy where the world is in a constant state of disruption and transition with innovation taking place every day at an ever quickening pace.

Prior to my taking office I remember hearing people say that Augusta’s economy was recession proof due to heavy and ongoing government investment, a strong and growing medical sector and the fact that each year we play host to the world’s most prestigious golf tournament in the Masters. However, as opposed to viewing these features of our community as guaranteeing a stable economy of which there’s never really any guarantee, I viewed them as assets which should be leveraged to maximize current and future investments in the city.


In getting directly involved with our business recruitment and economic development efforts, I made sure to thoroughly know my product with all of its strengths as well as some weaknesses which needed to be overcome.

After first being elected in 2005, I realized early on that my mindset and approach towards doing my job had very little to do with politics but rather focused on being Augusta’s lead entrepreneur and salesman. In getting directly involved with our business recruitment and economic development efforts, I made sure to thoroughly know my product with all of its strengths (high quality of life, low cost of living, strong labor force and an internationally known brand name associated with excellence) as well as some weaknesses (infrastructure improvements, neighborhood revitalization, education and creating opportunities to keep our best and brightest young minds in the city) which needed to be overcome.

The first big deal I worked on was my first year in office with the recruitment of an Automatic Data Processing (ADP) Solutions Center with a total investment of $40 million and 1000 new jobs. During the process I remember a local television commentator saying that there was no way I could have an impact on our local economy in my first year (I’d run to fulfill an unexpired term in 2005 and had to run again in 2006) and using that comment to fuel my fire to close the deal.

Part of my sales pitch was pretty simple: if ADP wanted to be a cornerstone of our new local economy we would welcome them in but if they didn’t take the opportunity to call Augusta their new home then another company would take that position. After much time, effort and a trip to ADP’s headquarters in Roseland, NJ with our economic development team on my own dime, we finally closed the deal and brought a Fortune 300 company to town which recently announced a $20 million expansion and another 450 new jobs. Several weeks later T-Mobile, another company we’d been recruiting, announced it was bringing a new call center and 800 new jobs to Augusta. So my first year as my city’s lead entrepreneur and salesman helped lead to the creation of 1800 new jobs for the city. Not bad, right?

In our local business recruitment efforts I always had at the forefront of my mind to focus on quality over quantity realizing that not every announcement would be as large as ADP. As I mentioned earlier, one of the problems facing our city was losing our best and brightest young minds to other cities due to lack of opportunity.

With this in mind it was music to my ears when Rural Sourcing Incorporated’s (RSI) CEO Monty Hamilton shared with me his vision for domestic sourcing quality IT jobs with a focus on bringing his Development Centers to tier-two cities with local universities to provide a pipeline for employees. Once again I saw a company that would fit in well in the Start-Up Augusta model and in 2010 RSI announced it would be bringing 100 IT jobs to our city. Monty and I have gone on to become great friends and we still talk about how he saw my face light-up when he first shared with me his business model and his vision for the role RSI could help play in shaping the future of Augusta.

Augusta is unusual to some degree in that we’ve always been extremely fortunate to have maintained a strong manufacturing base. In focusing on Start-Up Augusta, manufacturing had to play a key role in fleshing things out and our next major project helped to do just that.

After a long and very competitive recruiting process for a $170 million Starbucks manufacturing facility which would bring along with it 140 new jobs, negotiations had become a bit tense. During our economic development team’s final pitch to the company, I was given the opportunity to speak last.

I’ll never forget how much I wanted such a great, forward thinking company to be a part of our community so I pulled out all the stops with the following sales pitch:

 

“You know, I’ve never been to Seattle but I bet I’m the only mayor in America to have moshed at a Nirvana show and I’d love to come for a visit. Augusta is home not just to the Masters but to James Brown, the youngest Kennedy Center Honoree ever in Jessye Norman and two-thirds of Lady Antebellum. We’re also home to the world’s largest half ironman event which I’ve done two times. I handled the city’s greenspace program for four years and I still have my yin and yang tattoo from 1992. Basically, you guys are my dream company so what do we need to do to close this deal?!”

 

In the end, Start-Up Augusta had another addition and in July of 2012 I got to go live on CNN from the groundbreaking. Thank you Starbucks!
 


 

For nine years in office I had tried everything I knew how to get something going on Augusta’s underutilized riverfront in order to help begin to create a critical mass of pedestrian activity. In the summer of 2014, my last year in office, I shared with Chris Carr, the head of the Georgia Department of Economic Development and a friend, that Augusta had a facility with 140,000 square feet of empty space on our riverfront and that if there was anything he could do to help me fill it prior to my leaving office it would be much appreciated.


As fate would have it the last deal I would work on as my city’s lead entrepreneur and salesman was to help bring Unisys, a leading global technology company, and 700 technology jobs to our city’s riverfront. When we made the announcement with Governor Nathan Deal on the steps of the Capital Building in November of 2014 I made sure to shake Chris’s hand and say thank you. Last week I toured the facility for the second time and knew that Start-Up Augusta was now in prime position to achieve its vast, and often untapped, potential.

There were many other deals I worked on with a great economic development team throughout my time in office, but I think those I’ve highlighted above truly underscore what can be done in a city when it’s viewed as a start-up with its mayor serving as its lead entrepreneur.

There’s still much work to be done here in Augusta and in cities across the United States. However, the work of disrupting the status quo and moving beyond simply resting on our laurels has begun here and the same thing can happen in your city if you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone and go out and make it happen!

DEKE COPENHAVER
Deke Copenhaver is Principal with the Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.