By Kate and Stephen
We first heard about the “Future of Montgomery” program by way of Facebook. Hey, we live in Montgomery! We think about the future! Perfect! The Facebook event told us that the program would be put on by a group called Emerge Montgomery, which we were unfamiliar with, and would be held at a center of civic gathering – the Max Credit Union over near Eastdale Mall. As a sidebar, we learned that Max Credit Union was, according to their conference room’s “Wall of History,” founded with $125 stashed in a cigar box.
As for Emerge Montgomery, we discovered that it is, according to their website, “a program of Leadership Montgomery in partnership with the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.” Further:
“EMERGE Montgomery is The organization for young professionals to connect with each other and the community. It is a built-in network of contacts for 22-40 year olds who currently live in the Montgomery area or are considering Montgomery as a place to live.”
Being between the ages of 22 and 40, and armed with a healthy interest in the future of the city in which we live, we decided to attend. The Facebook event told us that we would hear from three important Montgomery leaders:
· Todd Strange, Mayor of the City of Montgomery,
· Elton Dean, Chairman of the Montgomery County Commission
· Nim Frazer, Chairman of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.
Dean didn’t show, but the comments by the other two guys were particularly interesting. Most of Frazier’s comments were praise for the members of Emerge and Leadership Montgomery, saying that they were bright leaders of tomorrow, that sort of thing. The people we met were certainly nice enough and very interested in what we did, where we worked, etc. There was a lot of card swapping, name dropping, and conversation about whether so-and-so was the V.P. or the Senior V.P.
Frazier’s comments encouraged the audience to join the Chamber of Commerce and participate in their events. He noted that his father was also the head of the Montgomery chamber, and reminded us all of how CNN drove their giant news bus into Montgomery a few months ago and did some reports.
But the show was really about Mayor Strange, who talked for about 45 minutes to an hour, all off the cuff, unscripted, without notes. He was casual, fairly open, and quite warm. He came off as candid, while excited about the prospects of the city he leads. It was hardly our first exposure to the mayor, but our longest duration of hearing him talk by far. And he saved plenty of time for questions.
Strange began by talking about his arrival in Montgomery at the age of 33 as a regional manager for BellSouth. He said that on his first day of work, he went to meet with the Chamber of Commerce and not only joined, but promptly set out selling memberships. He indicated that he made numerous false promises in order to induce people to join, prompting a great deal of laughter from the audience.
He quickly moved into talking about Hyundai jobs and a state bond issue of $5 million, which the city used to purchase the old Colonial Bank building downtown at 1 Court Square, facing the city’s famous landmark fountain. He ran through an impressive list of items that conveyed in addition to the building: laptops, furniture, art. We’d like to hear more about the city’s plans for these items. Current plans for the building involve making some cosmetic changes to the outside of the building, while leasing the inside space to merchants and businesses.
Mayor Strange stressed the value of inmate labor, saying that the city employed 20 prisoners to tear down the old Riverside Heights properties.
He touched on public schools issues and crime, noting that he himself had been pulled over in the various checkpoints that police officers are employing around town. He mentioned city plans to renovate Cramton Bowl and suggested that the city was in the running to secure a contract for some sort of college football bowl game in coming years. He discussed the future construction of a building designed to attract women’s athletic events and also previewed an upcoming $250,000 public relations branding rollout to tout Montgomery’s new slogan – the “Capital of Dreams.”
Questions from the audience involved the smart code issues discussed regularly here on MML, the city’s plans for green space, the prospects for a downtown grocery store (upshot: deli likely, full grocery store unlikely), and plans for the abandoned Montgomery Mall.
All in all, our first exposure to this whole scene was a positive one. The mayor seemed frank and easy-going. The people from Emerge and Leadership Montgomery were professional and evinced a genuine commitment to the often unrewarding work of civic engagement. The crowd was racially mixed and seemed to have a real interest in making Montgomery a better place. And on a weeknight during the summer doldrums, you really can’t underestimate how important it is that they were able to fill up the room. We’re hoping to continue to follow the activities of this group of “tomorrow’s leaders” and track the difficult work of charity, community improvement, and civic participation. Groups like this are one of the many driving engines that make democracy work.
Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a dog, a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.