Although it’s not that big a surprise that communities thrive better when thinking regionally, there’s another lesson built into the experience of Charleston: Hard times focus the mind amazingly.
The South Carolina port city unified after a serious economic and social blow to the community and its surrounding counties.
That was one of the stories heard by 61 Lafayette-area community leaders who journeyed to Charleston for a “leadership exchange” hosted by One Acadiana.
Like a similar exchange visit in the greater Phoenix area, hosted by New Orleans and Baton Rouge business groups, the One Acadiana visit explored lessons that ought to be in mind throughout southeastern Louisiana.
In terms of hard times, for example, a crash in oil prices is going to challenge economic growth in our state and particularly in the Lafayette area; in Charleston, it was the closure of the Charleston shipyard of the Navy in 1996 that forced new thinking.
Success didn’t come easily, but the Charleston leadership grappled with the tough challenges of forging regional alliances and pushing for a better public education system to prepare the workforce for jobs in a changing economy.
Charleston and its three-county region have racked up a series of successes on the economic development front since the naval shipyard closed, reeling in assembly plants for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, the Mercedez-Benz Sprinter vans and a line of Volvo vehicles, and a Google data center.
In the process, they’ve raised student test scores and trained more of them for the workforce, increased health care access, raised property values, increased business startups and provided greater access to venture capital. Longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley — one of the nation’s most admired local leaders — met with the One Acadiana delegation to talk about ways and means of progress.
Progress on such major issues requires a long-term commitment, just as Baton Rouge and New Orleans leaders learned in the Phoenix area, that transcends political boundaries and parochial concerns. One Acadiana’s regional approach is in line with the experience that we’ve seen in successful cities around the nation.
Although much of the discussion in such leadership visits can seem somewhat abstract, about bloodless facts and figures, the reality of human nature is that tragedy is also a spur for change. One of Charleston’s challenges recently presented itself when a deranged white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners of Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. Lafayette recently suffered a mass shooting, although the motivations of the killers apparently differed.
Surely, though, our own community losses were on the minds of those in the Lafayette group gathered in prayer at the Charleston church.
Leadership is about more than material things. That has been brought home from Charleston by the One Acadiana exchange, and it is a valuable lesson for our future.