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What Difference Does it Really Make?

January 25, 2021Doug Peters, President & CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce

I learned late last week that January is National Quality of Life Month. It’s true. I hope you’ve been celebrating!

What in the world is quality of life – or quality of place, as I call it – and why does it matter?

Believe it or not, there’s a direct correlation between the quality of a community and the community’s ability to attract new jobs, retain existing jobs and help cultivate new capital investment.

Let me explain.

About 20 years ago, I noticed something in the economic development world that seemed to be becoming all the buzz. In the circles I worked in, we began to see a dramatic increase in the need to improve the community – or “product,” if you will, that we were selling. It became necessary because to companies looking to expand, incentives were becoming perhaps less important to them than their ability to find workers. Communities began to believe that they can’t buy their way to prosperity, so improving the salability of their product became imperative.

And truthfully, I was very pleased when I arrived in Abilene to see that such a concept was to be included in the community’s economic development strategy, also known as the TIP Strategy.

Specifically, the strategy included a number of components that focused on one issue in particular, all with a tie to Quality of Place.

You may have noticed, back in early 2016 and simultaneous with the community’s adoption of the strategy, that the Abilene Chamber began to behave a little differently than before. We became intentional, and our work – in addition to our core role of business advocacy and service to our members – broadened just a bit.

Let’s take a short walk down Memory Lane.

At about that time, the Chamber came to understand and to act on the importance of downtown revitalization, as an example. Remember why? It’s because we knew then that in order to compete for jobs and capital investment, we needed to focus on our number one economic development challenge – the availability of skilled workforce.  That challenge was no different that any mid-to-large sized community in the United States.

And we can’t say we didn’t see the workforce challenge coming: demographers had told our nation for decades that retiring Baby Boomers would leave a gaping crack in our talent pool.

So what was the deal with a renewed focus on downtown? Research told us that in order to compete for workers, we needed to be on top of our game in order to stay in the game and, frankly to get ahead of the game. So far, it’s working.

Not because the Chamber’s doing it. But because a lot of risk-takers have jumped in to help create the “hip urban vibe” that was called for in yet another visioning exercise – the Downtown Vision plan, written by more than 1,200 stakeholders from all walks of life and from all across our great city.

But there was a catch. No one wanted to compromise the West Texas values that makes our community unique. We are who we are, after all, and rightfully proud of it.

And so that’s but one example.

The plan calls for a quality of place that offers the features, amenities, and attractions necessary to retaining and attracting the talent needed to meet current and future employer needs!)

What exactly helps to elevate a community’s quality of place? Simplistically put, it’s positioning the community as a go-to choice where people want to live. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Quality Education
  • Affordable, Accessible and Quality Healthcare
  • Public Safety
  • Retail offerings that offer variety and help to keep local dollars local
  • Cleanliness
  • Attractiveness
  • And amenities and opportunities that entertain and engage, like parks and museums and the arts

When our community improves itself as a “product,” which is how outsiders often see any community, its salability is enhanced. People begin to want to be a part of it. And when they do, they most often contribute to it in the form of supporting area non-profits, doing their individual parts to keep the community clean, participate in public safety (no city can arrest its way out of crime), spend their money there and yes, they work. Rinse and repeat.

So whose job is it to make our community better? Who works to enhance the product, so-to-speak? The short answer is, it’s all of our jobs.

The Chamber doesn’t have magic fairy dust to make our community’s ills go away (but boy, do I wish we did). The police can’t keep us safe without the community’s help.  Our health system needs all of us to take care of ourselves so that access and quality are maintained. And, interestingly enough, each of us have a job to do to support our teachers in the classroom by engaging in our children’s education.

And it doesn’t stop there. See trash? Pick it up. Have a choice on where to shop? Support your local employers (and fellow Chamber members first). You get the idea.

I remember being on a duck hunting trip a few years back with friends, in another state. We’d had lunch, and were driving back to camp. The guy driving was a visitor too.  He rolled down his truck window and chucked a big bag of trash out the window, into the ditch. I was shocked. I asked him, “why’d you do that?” His answer taught me a lesson. He said, “what difference does it make, it looks (crappy) anyway!”

He was right, but his solution certainly didn’t seem to help matters.

So while you’re celebrating the final week of National Quality of Life Month, ask yourself this: “What can I do to make our community just a little bit better place so that others can see it as I do and love it as I do?” You’d be surprised by how far that effort can go.

It matters. It matters not only to those considering investment in our already great city, but it matters to those of us already here. It gives us more reason to invest. It gives us reason to serve as an ambassador for our community when outsiders hear us talk about “home.”

Remember, first impressions are everything. Ours is outstanding, to say the least but it takes effort from all of us to keep it that way. I’d be if we try hard enough, we can always do just a little bit better.

Onward!

Doug

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