Every day is a new opportunity to find inspiration for our community. Our Chamber team is often seen across Tallahassee and Leon County at various events, gatherings, summits and roundtables where speakers tell stories with an intent to inspire. Sometimes the content is moving and sometimes it falls short, but no matter the program there is always something to learn. This week, during one of those events, our team had the pleasure of hearing a new story about how a small city changed its trajectory by working together to achieve a bold vision. Although our team has heard many such tales before, this one felt different.
It is safe to assume that most folks have never heard of Columbus, Indiana. Located some forty miles south of Indianapolis, Columbus is a city of roughly 45,000 residents and one very important Fortune 150 company. Cummins Inc. Makes diesel and natural gas engines that power trucks and equipment all over the world, and that work is based in Columbus. The company employs over 62,000 people and is the heartbeat of its hometown. Having a large company headquartered there isn’t what makes Columbus special though. Instead, it is the community mindset that they have which is the result of a legendary executive at Cummins and his radical approach to collaboration.
J. Irwin Miller isn’t exactly a household name, but in Columbus, people recognize him as their once and future champion. As a twentieth century industrialist, Miller bucked many trends. Long before it was popular to do so, Miller made corporate philanthropy a cornerstone of his company. He believed that among the many responsibilities the company had, chief among them was to invest in making Columbus a world class city for its size. At the center of that belief, Miller knew that for Cummins to thrive in Columbus, he needed Columbus to thrive first.
When faced with a shortage of elementary schools after World War II, the Columbus community decided to embark on an ambitious plan for building new schools for its booming population of young families. In the course of that plan, the first school built by the community was cheaply constructed and failed to deliver on the needs of the citizens. J. Irwin Miller saw that the community was trying to solve a problem of the moment and that instead there needed to be a bigger vision for how the community could use the need for schools to change its trajectory and standing in the world.
The vision that Miller began to champion was one that involved bringing the best architects in the world to Columbus and making the small city a destination for modern architecture. Miller believed that instead of just trying to solve a school shortage problem in a low-cost manner, the community should instead use the need for educational buildings as an invitation to attract new ideas to the community. Miller created a foundation with the purpose of funding the architectural design of the needed schools and began a movement in the community that is still paying dividends today. In short, he was committed to putting the city on the map by giving it a strong sense of place, that in turn would become an attraction for his future employees.
Today, the City of Columbus, Indiana is recognized around the globe as a place for the study of architecture and modern design. Beyond the initial school buildings, the people of Columbus continued to buy into the vision laid out by J. Irwin Miller by bringing the best architects in the world there to build every kind of building imaginable. The investments made into that generational need for more schools grew into an unmistakable identity for their community. That identity and deep sense of pride it created is a testament to what is possible through community collaboration and long-term strategic thinking.
Here is why this all matters in Tallahassee: The Columbus mentality for collaboration is now the subject of study by a group based there called CivicLab. Their mission has been to take what has worked so well in Columbus and share those principles with other communities. CivicLab was born from a partnership in Columbus that aims to connect and align educational, business and community leaders to ensure that investments continue to be made to preserve and enhance the future of the region. This week, that group came to our community and made a presentation as part of a new effort to solve Tallahassee’s long-term talent needs.
The presentation and workshops that were led by the CivicLab team this week were part of the ASPIRE collective impact summit held at the TCC Ghazvini Center for Healthcare Education. Our Chamber team was there because of our commitment to retaining and attracting talent in our community. This new collective has been created in Tallahassee with the goal to develop a collective system that supports educational attainment as a talent driver for this community. The current attainment rate in Florida is 49.3%. Here in Leon County the rate is 56.4% however, there is a massive attainment gap that exists by race and ethnicity.
The Tallahassee ASPIRE collective is aiming to achieve two things: 1) Intentionally designing an equity system where access meets information, and subsequently all citizens in the community have the opportunity to earn a credential beyond high school; and 2) 60% of this community’s non-credentialed, underrepresented citizenry earn a degree or credential by 2030. What we all learned during the CivicLab presentation and subsequent workshops is that in order to achieve these outcomes, our community will need to develop a collaborative approach that creates a new paradigm for how we reach those who need jobs and education the most. Like in Columbus, the solution may require an even bigger and bolder vision for what we can be as a city.
In Tallahassee, if we are to change our paradigm and create a system that results in more impressive economic outcomes for all citizens, then perhaps we must first consider what we are collectively aiming to be. What places like Columbus, Indiana teach us is that communities can indeed control their own fate if leaders there are willing to be bold. That is the mindset that our partners in the ASPIRE collective are working to replicate and spread throughout Tallahassee. The answer to how we can achieve more prosperity for our community, may just lie in the vision in which we set for ourselves as a whole.
In closing this week, we would ask that you consider the words of J. Irwin Miller and how we as Tallahassee citizens might emulate those beliefs in our community.
“We would like to see this community come to be not the cheapest community in America, but the very best community of its size in the country. We would like to see it become the city in which the smartest, the ablest, the best young families anywhere would like to live…” – J. Irwin Miller