By Maria Saporta
Macon, GA – Nothing like a hurricane to bring the state closer together.
Eight years ago, Georgia Forward launched its first forum to unify the state by convening leaders from every corner of Georgia.
It also happened to be a gubernatorial election year, and both candidates for governor – Nathan Deal and Roy Barnes – participated in the forum via a video teleconference.
That forum took place in Macon – and the hopes and expectations were high. We could unify the state if we brought diverse leaders and engaged citizens together to explore different issues with a spirit of consensus.
Fast forward to 2018.
Georgia Forward once again convened its forum in Macon on Oct. 10 – just as Hurricane Michael was hitting the shores of the Florida Panhandle and making its way across Georgia right over Macon.
The forum was held in the Georgia Farm Bureau, which was at the center of the storm worries.
Jeffrey Harvey, director of public policy for the Georgia Farm Bureau, who explained the eminent damage to the state’s crops.
“We have got 38 percent of the peanuts harvested,” Harvey said. “With cotton, we are only about 12 percent.” He went on to say pecans and peaches also could be impacted by the hurricane, and that all these products were very important to our state’s economy.”
Throughout the day’s discussion, the cloud of Hurricane Michael loomed over the forum as the 100 people who had convened in Macon worried about the threat of the hurricane on their communities. The forum also finished about an hour ahead of schedule so people could get out of Macon before the weather got worse.
That took away some of the disappointment that both candidates for governor – Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp – completely ignored Georgia Forward. They had both been invited to be the guest speakers during a lunch talk titled “Future of Leadership in Georgia.”
It would have been a smart, strategic for both candidates to attend Georgia Forward ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.
A.J. Robinson, chair of Georgia Forward and president of Central Atlanta Progress, sugarcoated the snub with hope for a good relationship with the next governor in the future.
“I think we are well positioned with both candidates to raise the profile of our efforts,” Robinson said at the forum. “We invited them. But they had more pressing things. We tried getting videos. We just couldn’t pull it off.”
At past forums, several of Georgia’s hub city mayors would participate – including the mayors of Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah. To the best of my recollection, the mayor of Atlanta has never participated in a Georgia Forward event. To really unify the state, it would take the participation of all the major cities in the state as well as many of the towns and counties.
The launch of Georgia Forward nearly nine years ago was with the best of intentions.
“In 2010, many of us were growing tired of the rhetoric of two Georgias, three Georgias, 10 Georgias,” Robinson said. “A colleague of mine, Amir Farokhi, and I believed our state needed an organization that could bring the state together in conversation.”
The host mayor in 2010 was Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, who is still mayor today. And Macon is a great example of the evolution of a community.
“We are the newest consolidated government in the state of Georgia,” Reichert told the forum’s participants. “On Jan. 1, 2014, the city limits were extended to the county lines. We are still a county. We are still a city. Because of consolidation, we became the fourth largest city in the state of Georgia After Atlanta, Columbus and Augusta.”
But Reichert also told Georgia Forward participants that the organization has never been more important with the dramatic changes occurring in communities throughout the state.
That’s why Georgia Forward has been focused on its signature program – Young Gamechangers. It is a leadership action program that brings together 50 of Georgia’s bright young people under the age of 40 to help solve persistent challenges of one Georgia community. Each class works for six to eight months to generate big ideas and present them to the community at the end of the program.
“We now have about 300 alumni,” said Robinson, who credited executive director Kris Vaughn for Georgia Forward’s recent success. “We’ve become a leadership development organization.”
The focus of the 2018 forum was to work on ways to cultivate the next generation of leaders – especially millennials. But the highlight of the trip for me was seeing veteran Georgia leader George Berry at a reception on the evening before the forum.
Berry held pivotal roles in Atlanta and Georgia – head of the Atlanta airport and the state’s economic development commissioner – helping set a tone of public service and working for the common good of the whole state.
Given our splintered political environment, our next governor should adopt a unifying message for the state. One step would be to endorse the efforts of Georgia Forward as a way to bring civic, business and government leaders from every corner of the state to work on a common agenda.
After all, we should not need a hurricane to bring us together.