Next stop Greenville, South Carolina: Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce sets latest trip

From Tallahassee Democrat

Two years ago, local power players went on a fast-paced tour of Nashville, Tennessee. The country music mecca with a vibrant year-round tourism base and a burgeoning start-up scene also is a capital city, but that’s about where its similarities to Tallahassee begin and end.

In two months, the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce is taking another band of hand-picked influencers on the road again, this time to showcase a Southern city with a more familiar feel: Greenville, South Carolina.

The invitation-only, three-day trip takes off in early April. Chamber leaders say it’s a chance to see a progressive city 400 miles away that’s maintained its unique charm, attracted manufacturing heavy hitters and made decades of wise investments that paid off when its textile economy unraveled.

“We also think the timing is going to be great as our city has gone through new transition in terms of leadership,” said Sue Dick, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. “We’re looking at this as a great opportunity for our local governments to advance some of their priority areas.”

Greenville, located between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, is home to about 65,200 residents, with an average age of 35.9 years old, according to city demographics. It boasts the highest level of foreign capital investment per capita in the United States, with more than 250 international firms from 26 nations either based or with locations in the city, including BMW and Michelin.

Lessons learned

While some critics have questioned the use of taxpayer money to fund such trips for elected officials who attend, supporters say the excursions bring decision makers and key industry representatives together to brainstorm and return with ideas that can help expand Tallahassee’s economic assets, such as research generated by Florida State and Florida A&M universities.

The Chamber’s previous trips included Boulder, Colorado, Austin, Texas, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Part of this is really looking to the future and saying what should we continue to aspire to be as a community,” Dick said.

The Greenville delegation will include 75 people from Tallahassee. Mayor John Dailey was on the Boulder and Nashville trips and he plans to be part of the delegation to Greenville, a city he hasn’t visited for 25 years.

“Anytime you can visit other communities and learn best practices and be able to take ideas back, I’m all about it,” Dailey said.

He’s heard Greenville has a vibrant downtown and has had success attracting manufacturing. He’s curious to know more about the city’s approach toward responsible growth while protecting the environment.

Dailey said he’s seen the direct benefit of such trips. In 2015, when the group was in Boulder visiting tech-startup companies, he realized more resources were needed for the then new Domi Station.

“I realized really quickly by visiting and talking to the CEOs in the tech industries in Boulder that a strong, high-fiber connection was very important, especially in internet startups,” he said.

At the time, Domi Station was just getting started after having launched in 2013 in the former Supervisor of Elections Office, which lacked high-speed connections.

Dailey, a then county commissioner, pushed for upgrades at Tallahassee’s first community incubator space. Domi is now Tallahassee’s model co-working space that’s worked with more than 130 startups who’ve raised an estimated $6 million in investment and grants.

“You go out there and learn best practices really quickly, and you’re always able to pick something up that you can bring back home,” he said.

City Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox, one of four newly elected officials on the five-member board, is planning to go on the trip. She said she’s looking to have an open mind and notebook.

“If we can learn something that we think we can use, we’re going to bring it back,” she said.

The Tallahassee baseline

Tallahassee’s economy appears to be holding steady in some areas and dropping off in others. There’s been an uptick in jobs for 33 straight months, according to the latest economic dashboard quarterly report by the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality.

It showed Tallahassee had 195,901 residents in the workforce in October, an increase of 1.2 percent compared to October 2017. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been since 2006.

In addition, the report shows fewer foreclosures and more travelers using Tallahassee International Airport, which business and local officials want to leverage to attract new industries.

The same report however, shows building permits are down by 19 percent, representing 31 fewer compared to the same period in 2017. Yet, several signature developments are under construction and bound to create an economic shift downtown and in other parts of the city.

And while the report also noted permits are down by nearly 20 percent compared to the same period last year, skyline changing developments are underway.

The developer behind the $150-million Cascades Project promises to be complete by Thanksgiving 2020. The mixed-used development gutted two city blocks to make room for apartments, brownstones, amenities, retail space and a five-story AC Hotels by Marriott. 

Less than a mile away, the $90-million Washington Square project is anchored by a 19-story Loews Hotel, a luxury brand with its own following that saw potential in the Tallahassee market.

Jay Revell, the chamber’s vice president, said such major projects should force local leaders to take serious stock in what Tallahassee will look like in the future. His eyes are set on Tallahassee’s bicentennial in five years, in which he sees a unique moment.

“We’re five years away from turning 200 years old. Our bicentennial is an opportunity to reframe the way the world sees us,” he said. “That’s the attitude we really have to take as a community. That’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to market your community in a different way.”

To get the world to see Tallahassee differently, requires planning and consideration of the needs and wants of the community, Revell added.

“We need to be waking up every morning as a community with a little fire in our belly,” he said.

Trips like the one planned for Greenville may help ignite new ideas for a city that’s already seen major change. Dick talked about a recent encounter with chamber leaders from Coral Gables who were talking with legislators. They walked from the Marriott Courtyard on Apalachee Parkway and trekked Franklin Boulevard to reach Cascades Park.

“They said, “Tallahassee is changing so much,” Dick recalled.

During that encounter, she gave a quick rundown of things to do and what to explore, including the new Proof Brewing Company’s new location on South Monroe Street. Dick said it didn’t take much to convince them the city is on the verge.

“You could see it in their eyes,” she said.