Official Blog of Bannon Leadership Consulting Founder Shawn Bannon

Finding Inspiration in the Passion of Regional Stewards

Last week, I turned in my copy for a cover story I’d been asked to write for the summer edition of Chamber Executive magazine about how regions promote themselves for economic development, talent attraction and tourism.  On one level, it’s a story about branding.  At another level, it’s a story about public policy, human interests and the economy.  But what I most enjoyed in the research and in writing this piece was the opportunity to spend some time with people who love the places where they live and who go to work each day for local chambers of commerce, economic development agencies and tourism bureaus hoping to make their communities better places to live, work, run a business or raise a family.

When I left my job at Mellon Financial Corporation (now Bank of New York Mellon) back in 2006, an executive search consultant with whom I’ve had a friendly relationship for some years told me I was crazy.  I was walking away from a good job with a great company after 11 years to work for a local nonprofit group – The Allegheny Conference on Community Development.  And this guy told me it could be the worst career move I would ever make.  In my mind, though, I was taking a job with an organization dedicated to improving the quality of the region where I lived and had grown up.  Everyday, I would have the chance to make our region a better place for my family, friends and neighbors.  And that, to me, was more important – and much more interesting – than almost anything I could do working in corporate communications for even a really wonderful company.

As I look back at that moment of decision in my career and the years since, I couldn’t be more certain that I made the right move.  My three years at the Allegheny Conference – which is the parent organization to the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern Pennsylvania – gave me tremendous opportunities to work on interesting issues ranging from job creation to transportation, education policy, effective government, workforce development and business attraction.  And then, when the time came for me to leave the Conference, I was in perfect position to step into the role of Communications Manager for the Pittsburgh G-20 Partnership, which let me play a hand in an historic effort to change the way people the world over think about the place that I’ve always called home.

The lesson in that experience is a lesson my father stressed to my brothers and I when we were growing up – follow your passion, always.

So, as I worked on this article for Chamber Executive magazine, which is the official publication of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, I found myself excited and inspired to talk with so many people who are so passionate about the work that they’re doing to create better places for the people that they love.  Having been in their shoes, I know that the work is hard, frustrating and thankless as often as not.  And, as I talked with chamber leaders and others from Albany, N.Y.; Asheville, N.C.; Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Green Bay, Wis.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Spokane, Wash., I couldn’t get enough of their enthusiasm for their communities.

Sadly, I couldn’t include a quarter of what we discussed in my story for the magazine.  Looking at the transcripts and notes from my interviews with these folks, I had more than 11,000 words.  And it was all great stuff!  But I needed to boil that down to fit into a 2,500-word story, and I needed to come up with some words of my own to give it context and narrative structure.

So, I figured I’d use my blog space just to share some thoughts about these communities and what didn’t make it into the article.

Albany and New York’s Tech Valley

19 Counties stretching from just north of New York City to just south of Montreal have been branded Tech Valley

19 Counties stretching from just north of New York City to just south of Montreal have been branded "Tech Valley"

I interviewed Mark Eagan, president and CEO of the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce.  Mostly, we talked about how Albany and other communities stretching from just north of New York City to just south of Montreal have banded together and reinvented themselves under the Tech Valley brand.  It’s very interesting stuff, and they are doing some remarkably innovative things at the University of Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.  Because my article was a bit more focused on economic development than workforce preparation, I had to make some difficult choices about what to keep.  What got left out included some very cool things that Mark and his colleagues in the region are doing to prepare young people in the region for the career opportunities that will be available to them in the decades ahead.

The region has really focused on cutting edge science and engineering – disciplines that require a certain type of inquisitive and investigative mind, whether you’re working for an advanced manufacturer of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, a computer chip designer or a video game maker.  And one of the things Mark told me is that companies are looking not only at the skills of graduating college and high school students when they’re deciding whether or not the regional workforce will fit their employment needs; they’re also looking at the elementary school curricula.  So, the region has launched a program called “I Love SAM (Science and Math)” for students in first through fourth grades.  Also, they’ve begun a teacher externship program that connects teachers with companies that will give them outside-the-classroom work experience during their summers away from school.  It’s a really innovative way of helping educators understand what will be expected of their students when they eventually enter the job market.

Asheville, N.C. 
I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed my discussions with Richard Lutovsky and Kelly Miller of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.  Asheville is one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited, and it’s unlike what I ever expected of a relatively small city in the mountains of western North Carolina.  It’s a place where virtually every flavor of food, music, art, class and culture collide.  And it all works.

Some of the things that struck me most about the folks in Asheville included how much pride they take in the contrasts that exist within their identity as a community and how they leverage those contrasts to attract tourism and business investment.  Kelly talked in great depth about the importance of placemaking – working to ensure each visitor’s/resident’s/business owner’s experience in Asheville surpasses his or her expectations.  He shared with me the Asheville brand promise:

“We guarantee you a life enriching experience each and every time you visit Asheville. It’s personal, personal to you. And it is also personal to us. We live that same genuine experience and want to share it with you. We empower you to discover a collection of experiences that is as unique and varied as each individual who visits us, and allows you to do so in a warm, embracing and creative environment.”

And what came across to me in talking with Kelly was that his pride in his work comes not as much from the success of efforts to promote Asheville or even the fact that President Obama recently vacationed there (a huge deal for any regional convention and visitors bureau), but from his personal belief in the first sentence of that brand promise – the belief that he and his colleagues really are working to enrich lives.

Austin, Texas

Austin has become a hotbed of innovation and technology

Austin has become a hotbed of innovation

Dave Porter of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce talked with me about the differences between Austin and the ideas that seem to come to mind when many people think about Texas.  Austin is a city on the cutting-edge in art, culture, education, research and technology.  It’s got a thriving music scene, one of the best-educated and youngest populations in the country, and it’s becoming an important player in the development of green energy technologies.

Having worked on the effort to shape Pittsburgh’s image as a global hub for the development of sustainable energy solutions – with the region’s unique concentration of natural resources; research facilities; and energy companies like CONSOL Energy, Plextronics and Westinghouse Nuclear – I was particularly interested to hear about Austin’s efforts, which extend far beyond wind energy and hydroelectricity.  Dave clued me into some really fascinating things that Austin is able to do in terms of smart grid technology research as it is the largest American city that owns its own electricity utility operation.  That’s no-doubt going to be an important factor in the region’s ability to continue to attract small- to mid-size companies looking for a region rich with talented young professionals … a region in which to develop innovative technologies to take to market.

Birmingham, Ala.
When I explained the story I was working on to Dave Rickey of the Birmingham Business Alliance, he said he was happy to talk with me but that he didn’t think it would be a very long conversation.  In fact, it turned out to be a terrific 25-minute discussion that I had to cut short, unfortunately, with a promise that we’d talk again this week … after I’d finished my draft of the article.

Birmingham Skyline - Courtesy of the Birmingham, Ala. Convention and Visitors Bureau

Birmingham Skyline - Courtesy of the Birmingham, Ala. Convention and Visitors Bureau

Birmingham is a really interesting city with a rich economic and social history.  Economically speaking, the region actually is very similar to Pittsburgh – so much so that it earned the nickname “Pittsburgh of the South” back in its industrial heyday.  But, like Pittsburgh, that heavy industrial base was hard hit in the second half of the 20th century, and the region has gone through a long period of economic transformation and diversification.  From a social and historical perspective, Birmingham still struggles against perceptions borne of the racial discord of the 1960s.

As Dave and I talked, he explained to me that he didn’t think he’d have a lot of good information for me about how the region promotes itself because his organization is the very recent result of a merger of the former chamber of commerce and a local economic development association.  They’re in the midst of a strategic planning effort that will produce, among other things, a comprehensive regional marketing plan.  But at this point, Dave wasn’t in position to tell me a whole lot about what that would entail.

I identified with what he was saying immediately – and I think I might be a little responsible for what he’s going through!  See, the Allegheny Conference went through that very same process of bringing together the local chamber, economic development and public policy folks a number of years ago, and I developed a presentation that our CEO used to tell the Birmingham chamber all about it at an event in 2008.  Essentially, he presented a blueprint for the sort of reorganization Birmingham has since undertaken.  I don’t really think that’s the reason leaders in Birmingham chose to reorganize; the reality is that it just makes good sense to have all of these folks working together under the same roof.  But I could sympathize with the struggles that go with that sort of effort.

So our conversation gave me an opportunity to tell Dave a bit about how we made things work in Pittsburgh.  And I hope he found it encouraging to hear about not only how we made the organization function but how we succeeded in recent years in reintroducing Pittsburgh to the rest of the world.  It wasn’t a quick or easy effort, but it was worth every difficult moment. 

Birmingham can be just as successful.  They’ve got a great concentration of banking, bio-tech, health services, manufacturing and other innovative employers; more than two-dozen universities and technical or trade schools; and amenities and a cost-of-living that make it a tremendous place to raise a family.  So, the challenge now is threefold.  First, they have to organize public- and private-sector resources, which they’re doing.  Second, they need to implement a model for continuous regional improvement, which I expect is part of their current strategic planning initiative.  And then they need to work to tell the stories that illustrate their social and economic transformation over the last 50 years — and, importantly, that articulate a vision for what they aim to become in the next 50 years — to business leaders, students, job seekers, tourists and journalists with consistency, credibility and passion.

And for anybody reading this who may not be familiar with the tremendous progress Birmingham has made to become a region that values diversity, I’d urge you to visit the city and especially the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Green Bay, Wis. and the New North
I was really excited to talk to folks in Green Bay when I began working on this article.  Back in 1995, I found myself walking down a Cleveland, Ohio, hotel corridor past Brett Favre and Reggie White.  I was in town for the game between the Packers and the Browns, and I’d somehow been given a suite on the Penthouse floor with many of the Packers.  It seemed like the entire team was sequestered for the night and huddled around a television set in the little study on that floor, watching college football.  I totally didn’t belong.  And what’s worse, I’m embarrassed now to say I didn’t know who they were.  I was there as a Browns fan, hoping to see one last victory in old Municipal Stadium before the Browns packed up and moved to Baltimore.  And I couldn’t have picked Brett Favre out of a lineup.  So we passed in the hallway without saying anything more than “How ya doing?”  The next day, I watched No. 4 dismantle my Brownies’ defense, and I knew the Packers would be my new favorite team once the Browns were no more.  I got to cheer them on in the playoffs that year and onto Super Bowl glory the year after that.  And to this day, even since the return of the Browns, the Pack has been my favorite NFC team.

So, it was a real thrill when I found myself on the telephone with former Green Bay Mayor and current Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Paul Jadin.  We talked mostly about the role of Green Bay in the greater region, which he and his colleagues throughout 13 counties in Northeast Wisconsin have branded The New North.  I also talked with Jerry Murphy of New North, Inc.

Together, Paul and Jerry shared with me a great deal about the work they’re doing to spread the word that this part of Wisconsin is really about so much more than Green Bay Packers football.  They’re proud of their Packers – don’t get me wrong – but they’re also really proud of the sophistication of the region.  Those folks wearing foam cheeseheads and no shirts despite sub-zero weather as they watch playoff games at Lambeau Field in January are also highly educated, highly skilled researchers, chemists, engineers and manufacturers working to develop high-end products for the shipping and wind energy industries when they’re at their day jobs.  Paul talked about the region’s performance arts centers, symphony and world-class botanical gardens, and he pointed out that – despite perceptions to the contrary – they don’t have snow on the ground 11 months of the year.

“On average, it’s actually only about five degrees colder here than it is in Boston,” he said.

Sadly, though I’ve been watching the Packers for 15 years now, I’ve never made it up to Lambeau to see a game.  Now that I know it’s a lot warmer than I thought during the football season, I’m going to have to make a special effort to do just that – maybe even this fall.

Nashville, Tenn.
Unfortunately, I missed Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce President Ralph Schulz when he and more than 100 other leaders from Middle Tennessee came to visit my hometown, Pittsburgh, on a benchmarking trip in April.  But I want to thank he and his staff for going out of their way to give me some really great information about their region as I worked to prepare my article.  I also want to take a moment to ask anyone reading this blog to please keep the people of Nashville in your thoughts and prayers as they struggle to recover from the death and destruction wrought by this past weekend’s storms.

Nashville is Music City and so much more.

Nashville is "Music City" and so much more.

Nashville is a unique region for a lot of reasons.  Most of us think of it as the home of country music, but it’s really so much more even within the music industry and has become the unofficial recording capital of the United States.

What many of us don’t realize, though, is how much the music industry fuels other creative endeavors that are the basis for a remarkable entrepreneurial culture in the region.  Last year, the Nashville Chamber and the Nashville Technology Council launched the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to connect entrepreneurs with critical resources to accelerate business creation and growth.

Integral to the launch was a micro-site called “I Am Music City,” featuring video interviews celebrating the successes of local entrepreneurs. This site,, is used to market the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and to share entrepreneurial success stories with the outside world. The branding campaign was created by students in Vanderbilt University’s Accelerator Summer Business Institute.

The one time I’ve visited Nashville, I got sort of a whirlwind tour and didn’t get to take in as much of the region as I would have liked.  But I was tremendously impressed with the array of amenities, the vibrancy of the downtown area and the friendliness of the people.  And after talking with the folks at the chamber, I can’t wait to get back.

Spokane, Wash.
Like Birmingham, greater Spokane is a region that has only recently reorganized to combine functions and realign resources for greater economic success.  Rich Hadley of Greater Spokane Incorporated talked to me at length about Spokane, which sits along the eastern border of Washington State and makes up the heart of a two-county region alongside Couer d’Alene in Idaho.

Rich paints a beautiful picture of the natural resources of Spokane – the mountains and the rivers – and as you listen you can almost picture yourself there, flyfishing in the Spokane River, hitting the links on one of the area’s 20+ golf courses, or swooshing down the slopes at one of its many ski resorts.  OK, if you’re like me, you never picture yourself skiing, but you get my point.  It’s an idyllic image of beauty and leisure. 

But Rich also tells you about the other side of the Spokane region – the vibrancy of the academic community and its more than 70,000 graduate and undergraduate students, the burgeoning health and human service industry, the fact that the region created more than 30,000 new jobs in the four years before the current recession, and that convention and tourism business is up more than 40 percent in recent years.  Spokane, he says, offers visitors, residents and new businesses the best of both big-city resources and proximity to nature that makes it an appealing place that often seems to be lost in the shadow of Seattle on the western side of the state.  After talking with Rich, it’s an area I know I’d love to visit, and I was really happy I had the chance to learn and write a bit about it for Chamber Executive.

This has been a really long blog – longer than the final article, in fact.  I thought it was important, though, to shine a bit more light on these people, who are doing great work for the communities they love, and the regions they represent.  I hope they’re all happy with the coverage when they read the article in the summer edition of Chamber Executive magazine.  And I hope I have occasion to run across each of them again in the future.

Have a great story to tell about one of these communities?  Want to share your thoughts on the importance of passion in our life’s pursuits?  Leave a comment below or e-mail me with your thoughts.  And don’t forget to follow Bannon Communications on Twitter.

One Response to “Finding Inspiration in the Passion of Regional Stewards”

  1. Elle Borowitz says:

    Hello Mr. Bannon,

    I just read your article that was in part about my city of Green Bay.

    I hereby extend a personal invitation to you and your family to come to Green Bay as my guest. I will give you a personal tour of the city, the history, and yes, even arrange for Lambeau Field. I’m a nobody here but I have a passion for the city like none other. I do all I can to increase awareness of the great facets of this city begining with those in my community.

    Should you choose to visit us and experience our warmth for yourself, I am at your service.

    I enjoyed reading your article and appreciate your spreading the word that we are not all hicks up here :o)

    Warmest regards,
    Elle Borowitz
    Green Bay, WI

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