Last week as I headed downtown to grab some lunch a man stopped me on the sidewalk to tell me that a slat on one of park benches downtown was broken. I thanked him, made a mental note to ask public works to fix the park bench, and moved on down the road. I didn’t think that much of the exchange because it happens all of the time. I meet people, they tell me about something in their city they need fixed or addressed, and I try to remember to see that it gets done. I think we get most of it done but occasionally a few things fall through the cracks. I like it when people tell me about things in their city they would like to see changed. It makes my job easier because I don’t have to guess about what citizens would like to see happen.
After lunch I returned to my office to find a pile of post it notes on my desk with names and numbers. This is also pretty normal, and I set about the task of returning calls. It turned out that one of the calls was to the man who told me about the bench. When I spoke to him on the phone he revealed to me that he and his wife are retired, and every Friday they load up the car and go and visit a small town in South Carolina. They shop in the local shops, and they eat in the local restaurant, and they enjoy a day exploring our state’s smaller communities. He wanted to share his impressions of our city with me.
Are you ready to hear what the stranger said about us, Clinton? He said that this was one of the cleanest and nicest small towns in the state. He said the people here were friendlier than any other small town he and his wife visited. He said our downtown was nice. He said we should be proud to live here. He said he looks forward to coming back. Now isn’t that exactly what we want to hear from a visitor? You bet it is.
And it turns out that this guy wasn’t your average visitor. He is an elected official from one of our state’s largest and fastest growing counties. He knows what it takes to make a community run, grow, and be successful.
When you meet a person on the street, or when they visit your store, you never really know who they are. That stranger two booths over at the diner could very well be a site consultant hired by a major manufacturing company to scout out our town for future industrial growth. Think that never happens? It probably happens more often than you think. At a recent lecture given to economic developers at Georgia Tech, some of nation’s top site consultants, the folks that big companies like Caterpillar, 3M, and others look to for help when determining where to locate factories, admitted that they do just what the man who stopped me on the street does in order to find the right community for a project. Turns out, there have been strangers visiting us and sizing us up for years.
The point is, someone is always watching what we do and developing an impression of who we are based on our actions. We know this is a great community. We know our schools are better than our statistics show, we know the quality of our people, and we know that our city is good place to do business.
We also know, better than anyone else, the problems our city faces. Like most people we tend to focus on the problems, primarily because no one ever fixed a problem or addressed a challenge by ignoring its existence.
We must realize that every day when the sun rises over our city we are taking the stage to audition for the role of our lifetime. We are presenting ourselves to strangers in an effort to entice them to believe in us, to invest in us, and to help us create the community we want for the future. When we talk negatively about our community we project an image that may put our future at risk. When we come together to address a problem, reach out to a stranger, keep our city clean, and help a fellow citizen we project an image that may change our community for the better.
Each day, every day, we need to defend the image of our community. Our future depends on it.