Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
During my time in public office two of my major focuses were helping to heal the racial divide here in Augusta and economic development. These have continued to be two of my primary focuses since returning to the private sector as they are both great passions of mine. I firmly believe that a deliberate focus on racial reconciliation by local elected leadership leads to much more success with a city’s business recruitment efforts. As our nation faces racial tensions amid a global pandemic, I believe now more than ever that inclusive cities where local leaders can tangibly show their commitment to valuing all of their citizens equally will reap rewards economically.
Through the years I’ve come to fully appreciate Augusta’s diverse citizenry as one of our greatest strengths and as something to be celebrated and embraced. As a city, many of our major successes from an economic development standpoint have been largely attributed to the diversity of our local labor force. When I first met with Automatic Data Processing (ADP) in 2006 their team shared with ours the company’s strong commitment to representing diversity in their employee base. Although it was not the only factor in a hard-fought recruitment process=, having a diverse labor force ultimately helped to tip the balance in favor of our community. Later that year ADP, a Fortune 300 company, announced they were bringing 1000 new jobs and a $30 million investment to Augusta. Since the initial investment the company has completed a $20 million expansion and now employs 1500 people.
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Tracey Laurence who served as Vice President of End User Services for Unisys during our economic development team’s recruitment process of the worldwide technology company in 2014. As we discussed the current racial landscape of both Canada, where Tracey lives, and the U.S., she shared with me that our economic development efforts were the most integrated and community oriented she had seen in any city she had ever worked with. Our efforts were inclusive of all sectors of the community in a deliberate effort to showcase our diverse labor force as a strength and something Augusta is proud of. Working with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Augusta Economic Development Authority, this fully integrated, community driven approach led to Unisys investing $20 million in a state-of-the-art riverfront facility while creating up to 700 new jobs.
Another major selling point for our community in our economic development efforts is our annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival. Each year the festival, which celebrates arts, culture and diversity, brings over 90,000 visitors to our city center while generating a $1.2 million economic impact. A wonderful representation of the true melting pot of our community’s wide-ranging ethnic cultures, the celebration has been named the South’s Best by the Southeast Tourism Society. I’ve often made the point that when I think of what Augusta looks like I immediately think of Arts in the Heart. God willing, our community will play host to our 40th annual festival this September.
These examples represent a small sampling of how embracing a diverse and inclusive mindset can benefit cities economically. It often seems that in cities diversity is seen strictly as a black and white issue. This is certainly part of the equation and racial inequalities need to be deliberately addressed in local communities throughout our state. However, embracing diversity requires a purposeful outreach to, and appreciation for, all sectors of our communities.
What can local elected officials do to tangibly reflect a commitment to diversity and inclusion? It begins with setting the tone through our actions. When I first took office, Augusta had a reputation for racially divisive politics. With this in mind, we brought in the Carl Vinson Institute of Government to take our local commission through diversity training for the first time. Although it was snickered at by many and I was asked if I was expecting my elected colleagues to sing “Kumbaya” together, the experience was eye opening for all involved and had a positive impact on the body.
During most of my time in office the racial divide of five black commissioners and five white commissioners still existed on our commission. However, through much hard work the body was able to forge a good working relationship which led to over a billion dollars’ worth of investment in our local economy and the completion of multiple major city building projects to the benefit of our local citizenry as a whole.
Abraham Lincoln once famously said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I honestly believe that local elected officials can, and should, have a major impact on uniting the citizens we serve from all walks of life around the common cause of making our communities models for embracing diversity, inclusion and tolerance. We are living in the midst of unprecedented times where the words, actions and decisions of local elected officials are now more important than ever. If ever there was a time for cities to lead on this issue, that time is now.