Mary Beth Bass: Expect the good
“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” In that one simple question Mary Oliver has captured my imagination for years … I often stop and ask myself, how would I answer? Am I living my life in the way that I should, or in the way that I would want to, given how fleeting our time is on this earth? I know, I know … I sound like I am in the middle of an existential crisis, but I often wonder if I’m not after all.
One Sumter is quickly nearing the half-way mark of our efforts, and I do feel inclined to be self-reflective. I came home to Americus and took this job as the executive director of the One Sumter Economic Development Foundation to make a difference — or at least try to — in spite of knowing the difficulties ahead. How could I not? I only have one chance at this. But the same holds true for all of Sumter County — we only have one chance at getting this right, at turning the tide of all of the trends we are so often inundated with as rural Georgia faces its own crisis of sorts.
I love the thought of life being wild, within reason of course, and that it is indeed precious. The wildness, in my mind, is the unpredictability of it all — and, isn’t that true for communities? Anyone working in public service will tell you that this line of work is not for the faint of heart, nor is it the stereotypical image of the “government bureaucrat” either. It takes boldness and courage, as I have written about before, and the ability (and willingness) to both admit and acknowledge the challenges ahead and the realities that exist before success is realized.
The metrics of success are daunting, and often depend on who you ask. Most people would tell you that it’s the bottom line — the number of jobs created, the amount of capital investments made, the increase in the tax digest. Those are all real and important. But there is an underlying metric of success, or rather impact, that is much harder to quantify, the return on investment even more difficult to measure or see. The hardline numbers that make up real economic development are absolutely essential and critical, but they cannot exist in isolation and do not occur if pursued without recognition of the very fabric of daily life that make up the community around it. Meaning, without one, the other would not occur at all. Without the persistent focus on the “softer” issues of economic development —education, poverty, public safety, civic pride, leadership, vision and planning — the true, hard-nosed developers and industries will see through your castle in the sky for just what it is, a nice sales pitch with little to back it up. The unfortunate truth about those systemic social issues, and ever-optimistic opportunities, is that those things take time to address, and short of waiting on a generation of students to graduate, are incredibly difficult to measure in terms of impact within just a few years.
However, there is hope. These are things you already knew — as a community, you imperatively understand the nature of this work, or you wouldn’t have created an entity such as One Sumter to work on the intractable issues of our hometown. The $2.2 million raised through the capital campaign efforts of 2014 and 2015 are an investment in a future that it takes time to build, a future that if it were easy and quick to create, would already exist.
I suggest to you to consider the guidance that has held me steady over many a battle. A devotional my mother gave to me when she dropped me off at the University of Georgia all those years ago has a passage that talks about delay and denial — specifically, that delay is not denial. It is faith at work.
Faith is what it will take for Sumter County to fulfill the bright future we have envisioned. Faith and trust, even when we cannot see. The things ahead, such as building a bold, new workforce development and educational initiative through a college and career academy will take years to fulfill, but that’s all, just a few years from where we started. Turning around things like poverty rates and crime will take building a community committed to tackling those issues. Yes, bringing the jobs here will help, but building an environment in which an industry wants to bring those jobs — those things such as parks, greenspace, a vibrant downtown, entertainment venues, social networks that are open and inclusive, eclectic and interesting, and perhaps rethinking the development of one of our greatest assets, Lake Blackshear — are just as essential. These “feel good” things support the efforts of those addressing the weightier issues. In other words, we have to build the future we want and expect the good.
Course-correcting expectations are important, just as is having faith in our future. A former Councilmember of mine in another City used to always counsel me with this: “Mary Beth, what’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time, right? Well, we didn’t get this way overnight, and there’s certainly no way you can fix this overnight. It took years to get in the shape we’re in, and it will take years to fix it.”
I encourage you to be expectant, expect the good. We have embarked on a great journey to build a brighter future, but we must stay the course. Over the next several months, you will begin to hear more about our efforts to partner with Sumter County Schools on their college and career academy endeavors. This will take a village to succeed, and it will take all of us clearly defining the needs of our community, our workforce, our village. In this instance, the metrics of success are clearly defined, the timeframe readily established — we just have to have the spirit of tenacity and the wonder of expectancy, of faith, to bear it out.
Mary Beth Bass is executive director of the One Sumter Economic Development Foundation.