Sunday, August 12, 2012

Going For Gold...

In case you didn’t notice, the Olympics are underway in London and the networks of NBC Universal are bringing coverage of the Olympics to my living room round the clock on several television stations. I love the Olympics, and even though I know that I should turn the tube off and go to bed, I choose instead to stay up a little later to see what story, what sport, and what triumph might be just beyond the next commercial break.

And there are great stories. Take Kieran Behan, the Irish gymnast who competed in this year’s Olympics. He has been confined to a wheelchair. Twice.  Doctors told him he might never walk again. Twice. Over the weekend he took to the gymnastics floor in London as only the second Irishman to ever do so; and even though he failed to qualify for the final round, he is a true Olympian in anybody’s book. 

And there are great mistakes. Matt Emmons is prime example. He is competing in air rifle. In 2004 he made a mistake and shot at the wrong target, losing a chance at a medal. In 2008 his gun fired prematurely, a mistake, which also resulted in losing a chance at a medal. This year Emmons will compete again, after beating cancer, and he states that his failures, mistakes, battle with cancer, and the birth of his child have all combined to make him a wiser and more prepared athlete.

And there are great triumphs. Ryan Lochte defeated swimmer Michael Phelps on the first day of the games. For those of you that haven’t been paying attention, Michael Phelps is basically a human torpedo who shoots through the water with such ease that his body shape has been analyzed by news reporters to try to discover why he is so good. How good is he? He was on his way to winning the most Olympic medals ever, and he may still do that. To defeat Phelps is a triumph in athletics.

But what amazes me most is the lifetime of effort. Not one of the Olympic athletes crawled out of bed last week and said “Honey, I think I’ll go to London next week and I’ll bring home an Olympic Gold Medal.” Olympic level athletes train for years. Some train for decades. These are not flash in the pan athletes but instead they are steady, tried, and true professionals who are focused on a single goal.

And as I watch the Olympics unfold in my living room, I often think about our city and how we are performing in trying to achieve the goals that we have set for ourselves, particularly in the field of economic development. Economic development should be an Olympic sport. We must train, practice, develop, and pursue our goal for years in order to be competitive in the sport of securing jobs and economic growth for the city.  

Just like athletes, we have a few walls to overcome. In a community founded on ideas of entrepreneurs such as Jacobs and Bailey, we don’t have a supporting and nurturing environment in which to help small business grow from an idea in a person’s head to a full-fledged business that brings jobs and investment to our city. Remember Clinton Mills? It started as an idea in a person’s head. All the institutions we hold as defining to our community started at some point with one person and one idea. There was a time when our city knew how to grow small businesses into empires of industry. We might do ourselves some good if we got back to those roots.

We are also heading towards a product wall. Product, in economic development terms, is the land and buildings that you have to offer a potential industry. Do we have industrial parks? Yes. Do we have abundant energy and utilities? Yes. Need rail access? We got it. Easy access to all major Southeast population centers? You betcha. Is that enough? Probably not. First, while we have industrial parks we no longer have a Class A industrial park in Laurens County. We also don’t have the completed buildings that most companies are looking for. According to the South Carolina Department of Commerce, 92% of all companies that come to South Carolina looking to locate their company here are looking for an existing building already in place. The economic development team that is working on this in Laurens County is considered to be one of the best teams in the state and I feel sure we will address these issues that may one day limit our competitiveness.

There are some walls that we are pushing through. Workforce development is one of these walls. We are blessed with two great public school districts, an award winning four year college, and a campus that houses Piedmont Tech, provides access to USC courses, and offers lifelong learning opportunities. The Laurens County Chamber of Commerce has taken a leading role in developing our workforce through innovative programs and a focus on the work keys initiative. Piedmont Tech’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing will offer training for residents so that they can master the skills needed to obtain work in today’s modern manufacturing environment. Manufacturing has changed and people who work in manufacturing must have a strong technical background.

The last athletic wall we need to break through is pride. Why is pride important? A BMW executive once answered the question “Why did you locate in Greer?” by telling the story of their visit to the community. They looked at the schools and the workforce development programs that the community was undertaking and they saw a community of skilled workers. Then they drove, on their own, around Greer. They saw a city where some people were struggling, but those people were also working hard to maintain the appearance of their houses, yards, rental properties, and neighborhoods. Taking care of your spot in the city means you have pride in your community. BMW will tell you that all it takes to make one of the world’s finest automobiles is skill and pride. Those values are required. The rest they will teach you when you show up for work.

The founder of Presbyterian College once suggested that the success of the college and the community relied on perseverance and pluck. Those are two qualities needed to make a great Olympic athlete and a great community. Pride and skill are needed as well to make a great Olympian, a great city, and incidentally, a fine European motor car. Pride. Skill. Perseverance. Pluck. That’s the recipe for our economic development efforts too. Just like an Olympian, we will train for the long term. When our opportunity comes to run the race, leap over the hurdle, conquer the gymnastics floor, or lift the heaviest of weights, we will stride confidently to the floor, and with the skill of our workforce, the pride of our community, the perseverance of the years it has taken to develop our product, and just a little pluck, we will compete for the economic development gold not for ourselves, but for our children.