The PP Phenom

I love good music. My tastes run all over the road, but like most of us over 50, I have a hard time distinguishing some of the new styles and performers from each other. I find myself saying some of the same things about music today that my father said years ago; they all sound alike to me.

I don't put a lot of effort into keeping up with the "latest thing" in popular music. I have the music I like, and I'm not looking for new stuff. But I would have to be dead not to have been exposed to the face, the smile, the fans, and yes, the music of Phillip Phillips in Southwest Georgia these days. Long before I actually listened to him perform on American Idol, I knew who he was from all the area buzz  and 'vote for' signage.

His music? He's good. He does have his own style, which is something you don't see much of these days. I'm not sure if it's my cup of tea, but he's certainly a talented young man. I would probably never buy a CD or download a Phillip Phillips song, but that's just me. My 13 year old daughter loves him, so all is right with the universe.

She and I were going to be out of town on the day of his recent Leesburg "homecoming" concert. To help make up for her sacrifice a wee bit, I took her and a couple of her close friends out to see his arrival at the Albany airport the night before. The crowd was massive, and the energy was palpable. I stayed back, so my little trio of Phillip fans could easily spot me if required. We all know it never was, and the girls had much more fun with Dad not hovering. I'm such a wonderful father.

But I think I actually had the best time. I watched as they slowly worked their way up closer, then a little closer, then a little bit closer to the building where he was being interviewed by the local media. These girls were going to get as close to Phillip Phillips as the law and airport fencing would allow. They were on a mission, and it had nothing to do with Phillips' music. This was about him, the local phenomenon, the celebrity among us. This was an event in itself and they knew they were a part of it.

When the moment of PP revelation arrived, you knew by the sudden, all girl shriek that moved through the crowd. Phillip Phillips had left the building. Phillip Phillips had got in an SUV. Phillip Phillips was being escorted by a small parade of blue lights. Phillip Phillips' vehicle was moving through the corridor of fans, and it all happened in less than two minutes. I could not help but flash back to the days long ago when groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, and The Beach Boys, converted the simple process of moving from here to there into a small riot.

Minutes after the caravan whisked their star away, my trio walked up looking calmly satisfied with their efforts. I've learned over the years that unless there is some serious breach of public etiquette, to just hang back and let the girls be the girls. They relived those few seconds when they had Phillip all to themselves. "He is so pretty!", one exclaimed, to which the others agreed and added adjectives of their own. "He looked right at us!", I heard another offer. Then my girl turns to me and says, "Dad, we were just one foot away from him!". My little trio was now in an elite group. They knew that so many there that night had not come close to that measure. These fans would never know first hand, what they knew; he's pretty!

Part of me wants to make sure that my girl does not get all wrapped up in this sort of thing too much, but her Mom and I have done a good job raising her, so that's not really an issue. I do worry that our culture is bordering on real idol worship when it comes to our musicians and other performers. I'm fairly confident that one reason Phillips has garnered the local attention he has, is the hard economic struggle so many face here. He is an uplifting distraction, a hopeful dream, and we need that.

Another factor is social networking and the popularity of America Idol itself. The promoters use the web to spin such things into hyper drive. Yesterday's unknown can quickly become today's mega-star. And don't get me started about the public voting component of the show. What seems to be a talent show, is really a super-sized popularity contest, with a nation wide, 'get out the vote' campaign. Add the fact that people can vote more than once, bragging on Facebook about how many times they do,and you have an ingenious and amazingly effective marketing and promotional tool. It's an advertiser's dream show. I work for a Fox station, so from a business standpoint this is fantastic, but enough shop talk.

As I write, I do not know if Phillips has made it to the next "round" of AI. Regardless of how that goes, he is certainly going to have some kind of future in show business. I wish him all the best, but I worry about some of the folks here having PP withdrawals, when he's moved on with his career. I'm not too worried about my daughter though. She's very mature for her age, well-grounded, and understands how this sort of thing is to be enjoyed for what it is, and nothing more. Besides, she has a new "favorite" singer every three months or so anyway. She's like her dad; very cool, very hip.

Is Albany's Problem, Leesburg? & The Answer Is; No.

Recently, I posted a column in The Albany Journal and the Metro Gazette, that drew a very heated and passionate response, unlike any other I've ever submitted. In one sense, this was the response I was going for, but in another, I was surprised at the level of personal attacks leveled in my direction, for simply stating a viewpoint that I have heard for years in Albany from a lot of people.

The first column was written to express that viewpoint, and not necessarily my own. That was to have been made clear, in the follow up piece. It will be a week delayed in the Journal. It is running in the next Gazette.

I thought I would post both columns together here, so that my admittedly clumsy experiment might be better understood. (The second one was edited to reflect and respond to the feedback from the first.)

Is Albany's Problem, Leesburg?

If you’ve lived in Albany most of your life, or even for just a few years, then you know the reality of Lee County’s growth; it’s in direct proportion to the growing problems in Albany. “White flight”, as it’s been called, has been going on for decades. Money, mostly white money, has opted to take the easy way out of addressing the problems of crime and poverty here. They don’t. Instead, they have left, taking with them the tax revenue that would have provided the much needed funds for Albany to fight those same problems. In effect, the rapid growth of Lee County has only expedited the decline of Albany.

Yet, these same folks that fled to their creek homes and country roads, depend on the jobs and businesses that Albany still offers, even under the massive social pressures such a decline brings.  I have heard many whites say that Albany is overrun with poor blacks because so many black women have so many children they cannot support. That is a genuine problem that needs to be faced, mostly by the black community itself. But the other factor in the racial percentage shift of Albany is that so many whites have moved away to Lee County. Simply put, these white people want all the benefits of living near a larger city; they just don’t want to live among so many black people. Truth hurts.

Who it hurts, is everyone. If you really have that kind of bigotry driving your social and geographical leanings, then really move where there are no black people, and not just across a county line so that you are not technically responsible for Albany anymore. If that’s the issue, there are plenty of places to live in this country where there are hardly any black people at all. But, they cannot do that, because many of these same white folks that fled from the growing black majority here, run businesses in Albany that depend on blacks for cheap labor and customers. It’s a real pickle.

The battle for economic development between these fighting sister cities is silly. It’s not like we have massive amounts of opportunities to squander between us. Just like the in-fighting that goes on within the two communities themselves, Albany and Leesburg only hurt each other with this ‘separate and unequal’ policy. Lee County has been doing everything in its power to develop the infrastructure to support this Albany exodus and attract new industry for a long time. What’s ironic is that their efforts will one day make them large enough to have some of the same crime and poverty concerns Albany now lives with. Then where will they go?

The other side-effect of Lee County’s growth and Albany’s decline is that some of the new residents north of the Good Life City, are black. Professionals that have moved to the area, and others that have managed to move up in the economic strata, are opting for that same quiet, crime-free dream of Lee County as well; proof, that blacks prefer safe streets just as much as whites. Go figure.

The Answer Is; No.

My last column got more than a little attention, by laying a good portion of blame for Albany’s decline, at the feet of former white residents of Albany, now residing in Lee County. It was by design, a broad brush, naive generalization that reflected the long-standing black/white issue here. It was my attempt to convey what many still in Albany, feel about those that leave, yet still complain about the state of things here.  Do I believe that all people living in Lee County are white racists? Of course not, but some are.  Some blacks here are just as racist against whites. Ignorance does not play favorites. That was the point, and the reaction of so many, calling me all sorts of things for simply putting in ink, what is said in many private homes all over the area, only served to prove my point. The perception is that both races feel stuck with each other, and have a hard time living together. It’s a culture clash that we’ve reluctantly grown accustomed to.

By the comments that I have received both in person and online, it appears that my little dramatization and exploration of the local mindset, revealed that we are as polarized as ever, if not more so in these hard times.  As in all things, there was an element of truth in my article. It is very frustrating to hear my white friends in Lee County, complain about the state of things in Albany. My friendly response to them as always has been something to the effect of; ‘move back and I’ll take your input a little more seriously’. That changes the subject real fast. It is hard to hear someone complain about something they’ve opted out of, while you’ve  stayed to work within the broken system as best as you can.

Those few that agreed with the point of the piece without any hesitation or reservation were for the most part, very young and politically liberal or “progressives “as they prefer to be called these days. That mindset is eager to climb on board anything that seems to attack conservative, white established systems, highlighting the polarization that the article was designed to reveal. The older the person, the less likely they were to agree with the concept of “white flight” being a problem. They saw it as an only option in a desperate situation. All of those were of course, white. Many of those came to the defense of leaving Albany, while still making a living here, because of the poor school system in Dougherty County; can’t argue with that.

A few called the piece or even me, “stupid”.  Some said I was “race-baiting”. I knew that by using simple terms like “white people” and “black people” over and over, would stir up the passions on both sides, and it did. I hate to break it to you, but we are black people and white people. Saying so is just a descriptive observation, not race-baiting. I’m not real fond of the terms Caucasian and African-American. They seem a bit formal and removed.

Perhaps my approach was a bit extreme, but I think it served its purpose. After decades of work from all quarters, and all sorts of programs and dollars thrown at the problem, all of us in one way or another are still very sensitive about the subject of race in our Albany. We can easily talk about it in private, usually quite viscerally, but public discussion of Albany’s biggest single issue is not something we have learned how to do yet, without calling people names and becoming very polarized.

Sit race down for a second. Anyone should feel free to say that Albany is held back by ignorance and apathy. We are. Our systems today support this industry of poverty and dependence that is slowly killing us. Out of this is born all the social ills that generate the “white flight” in the first place. It’s also true that by leaving Albany, you are taking away the individual capabilities and revenues that Albany needs. I had people on both sides of this argument say in effect, “good riddance”, to the other. I’m not trying to start a fight. I’m just sharing what we all know is being said. Today there is even talk by some of breaking the Northwest corner of Dougherty County away from Albany, and forming a third governing entity. That is the exact opposite direction we need to go.

There are those, white and black, that have entrenched beliefs that cannot be changed, and will always serve to divide us. However, it is not true that Albany today can blame its problems on Lee County, nor can Lee County blame Albany. Those that have left, and those that have stayed each have a responsibility to the other. I guess what I’m trying to say, that I attempted to point out with my draconian social experiment, is that we are not two communities, but one. The line on the map only separates us symbolically. It does divide some of our governing institutions and taxable revenues, but those can be dealt with if both sides understand that to have real sustainable growth in the area, we must find a way to work in unison. Can we?

And For those that seemed so certain of my own political leanings based on my comments, good luck trying to nail those down. I think both the democrats and republicans have more wrong with their messages than they have right. Albany and Lee County do not have the kind of time, money, or energy to be divided along political lines; at least not at the local level. Common sense and problem resolution are the only mantras we should follow. So, to everyone I stirred up or even upset last week, I can only say I did so for what I felt was a valid reason. I wanted to get us talking about it. If my email inbox is any indicator, it worked.

Moving Dollars Around Isn’t Growth

For as long as I can remember, Albany’s plan for economic development has always centered on building up, or rejuvenating specific geographical sections of our community. When I was a kid, the buzz was all about expansion efforts in Northwest Albany. The Albany Mall, Wal-Mart, and a host of mini-strip outlets, slowly drove the vast majority of shoppers and businesses away from our core, and out to the burbs and beyond. All was well. 

The future seemed bright until we turned around to see the big empty spot where retail was once king; Downtown Albany. As businesses left there, government and professional offices moved in. Vital aspects of our city to be sure, but not the sort of development that one can get excited about. Then SPLOST money and other government funded programs gave us a “new” downtown. The multi-million dollar Flint Riverquarium, Ray Charles Plaza and the riverfront improvements, The Hilton Garden Inn, upgrades at Thronateeska Heritage Center, including a one-of-a kind planetarium, and a revitalized CVB Welcome Center at the Riverhouse, all played a role in our efforts to turn Downtown Albany back into the center of social and economic strength it once was.

Yet, we still struggle. True, this may not be the best time in the economy to take an honest look at how we are doing in Albany, but it’s not something we can put off. The offerings of  the Northwest retail districts, Lee County, and Downtown Albany, all have merit and play a key role in our future. The problem is not the ideas, or the geography. The problem is the people. We just don’t have enough people, with enough money to spend here, to keep all segments busy at the same time.

With large plant closings, a rising crime rate, and other concerns, our population has steadily dropped. This leaves businesses and our attractions fighting for those remaining pocket books. If Downtown takes off like everyone hopes it will, there will be a drop in business somewhere else. We desperately need to attract new people to Albany, either as visitors, shoppers, or residents. That is the only way we will have real growth.

It’s never a good sign when regional attractions such as Chehaw and Riverquarium spend so much of their time, money, and effort to get the local community through the doors, and even to become a “member” of their organization. They are failing to understand that their real value to the community is not what they can do for us, but what they can do to attract visitors, dare I say, tourists, to the Good Life City.

I’ve used this example before, but it’s a good one. Back in the mid-90s I lived in St. Augustine, Florida. I served on the marketing committee of the St. John’s County Chamber of Commerce. Not once, in all the many development meetings I participated in, was there any concern given to how best to get the locals into the Wax Museum, The Spanish Fort, The Old Jail, or Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. They understood the basic math. Getting that demographic to spend money at the attractions was simply moving the local dollars around. It would add no new growth to the local economy. Their focus was on regional and national marketing programs and ad campaigns. That can be expensive, but it’s a certainty that any revenue generated was new money, not recycled money. Now, I’m not saying that we are on par with such a tourist centered economy as St. Augustine, but we can learn something from them.

Instead of our attractions all competing for local attention and wallets, they should combine their limited marketing budgets with the major hotels, restaurants, and the local arts institutions to develop a single message about Albany, and how we can be a great “weekend get-away”. That message should be delivered to the major cities around us like Tallahassee, Columbus, Jacksonville, Macon, Savannah, and even Atlanta. We should never hear about it. Those of us that have lived here for a long time, may not easily see what a great offering we have, but to those living in larger metropolitan areas, we make a great mini-vacation location to get away from the fast pace they are accustom to.

But our attractions and institutions do not work together to that mission. They see each other as competition, not partners. Nobody wants to surrender any control of their own message, so instead of having one powerful story to tell the outside world, we have half a dozen short stories we keep telling ourselves over and over, wondering why things don’t change.

 Albany’s historical, territorial attitude, that keeps us debating on which portion of our community we should support, leads to our collective loss in serious growth. Maybe these hard times will force us to speak with one voice that will put new dollars in our one pocket called Albany.

The Run-Off Is Ours To Define

We have a run-off for mayor in Albany between B.J. Fletcher, a local businesswoman, and former City Commissioner Dorothy Hubbard. Former State Representative, John White forced the run-off with his third place showing. So here we are. Regardless of the final outcome, it is a turning point for our Albany. It will be the first time a woman has served as our mayor. That will be interesting to see, but is there more to this? Albany needs a substantive change in direction. Is this it?

How many opportunities does Albany get to change it's destiny? So far, I believe, we have not taken full advantage of any previous shots at community wide improvement. SPLOST money has been misspent, attractions sit empty, or underutilized, large employers shut down, while the big business of poverty goes unchecked. The powerful few would rather Albany stay the way it is, than risk losing their grip on the reins. As long as the average citizen is not engaged, they will continue to run Albany as there own cash cow, in both the private and public arena. It seems we prefer to stay distracted and mired in scandal, petty crimes, corruption, apathy, and social laziness. It's easier. That's not to say that the Fletcher and Hubbard camps lack a real passion to serve the entire community. I have to assume both are motivated by a desire to make things better. I have to assume that, or I have to move, and I'd rather not just yet. Moving is such a hassle.

So now we gear up for a run-off election for both the mayor's office, and the city commission seat of Tommy Postell, who finds himself fighting to keep it away from Victor Edwards. I'm not in that ward, so any thoughts I have on that race I'll keep to myself and just say if there is one, may the better man win. But I do have a thought to share on the mayoral race. I want to see Fletcher win.

It's not complicated. Of the two choices, Fletcher has the most real world experience at creating real jobs for real people. No other issues matter at this point.Without income, without some kind of financial security, all of us flounder. We need a successful business person as mayor right now, and that is Fletcher.

Create enough new jobs, and I mean real jobs, not government subsidized, grant-based, glorified, feel-good, vote buying, temporary positions, and all of our other problems as a city are effected. We need to convert our city from the mecca of regional poverty that it has become over the last few decades, into a shinning example of how people can come together and really fix things. Just think of our economic woes as a raging, rushing Flint River, and apply those same 'bonding skills'. There is nothing we cannot do, if we want to do it bad enough. Do we?

The few times I've met Dorothy Hubbard, it was pleasant. She seems like a nice person, and someone trying to do her best. But she is from the school of 'been there, done that'. Regardless of what she may want to do now, or may say in the campaign, her vision of Albany city government is tainted by old habits learned as a commissioner. Those cannot be unlearned. She is the candidate of the established power base. My other, more political and cynical concern, is that her best shot at winning will require some type of reaching out to those that voted for John White. They will want something for that support. If there was ever a candidate that was all about  the old ways of governing this city, John White is it.The politics of division along racial and economic lines lead us into the mess we find ourselves in today. A house divided cannot stand, and our home is already in desperate need of repair. I am concerned that Hubbard would feel obligated to steer policies in ways that put more distance between us as fellow citizens. That would be a disaster.

We need a drastic turnaround in how local government functions. Fletcher is new to local politics, although she has been an active member of the business community here for years. It is her newness, and her singular focus on shutting down the industry of poverty and creating jobs, that has myself and many others supporting her. Is it risky stepping off in a new direction? You bet. The first days of a Fletcher administration may be a hectic mess. There may be back-steps, and mid-course corrections of one sort or another. Fletcher will run into old ways; black and white. They will fight her at every turn to keep things as they are, but she is a stubborn lady. My money is on that stubbornness winning the day for all the people of Albany, not just one side or the other.

So is this a symbolic election of our first lady leader, or is it something more? For Albany's sake it must be something more. The right leader at the top can make a huge difference, but let's not think that one person can save our city. Fletcher, Hubbard, and the other candidates, have all done a wonderful thing for Albany. They have shown us that to be a part of a community, you have to step up, take a stand, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. Albany's future is in all of our hands, and this run-off election will be what we make of it.