Last fall the Longview (TX) Chamber of Commerce led a delegation of business and community leaders on their first ever intercity visit. Their destination: Chattanooga, Tenn. An intercity visit, sometimes called a “leadership exchange,” is a trip to another city or region taken by a diverse group of leaders from a community’s public, private and nonprofit sectors. The visitors discuss their community’s challenges and opportunities with leaders from the host community. The interaction among leaders facilitates the exchange of best practices and lessons learned between the two cities. Kelly Hall, CCE, president and CEO of the Longview Chamber, discussed the trip with Ian Scott, ACCE’s V.P. of Communications and Networks.
What made you decide to launch an intercity visit program?
The visit was designed to inspire new ideas. We wanted to make sure our corporate and civic leaders are taking time to think creatively about the future of Longview with a 40-year time horizon. The intercity visit was designed as the annual mechanism to facilitate that kind of creative thinking. In my opinion, a chamber’s unique strength is its ability to convene all the right people needed to develop and implement a shared vision for the region. We’re using the intercity visit to facilitate visioning and shaping the future of Longview.
How did you select your destination?
First, we considered existing issues/concerns. Downtown revitalization has been a priority for our organization for more than 10 years. One of our long-term goals is to ensure we maintain a vibrant downtown. We also wanted to select a destination where our team could learn about the importance of developing a shared regional vision, building a collaborative economic development team, and fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Lastly, selecting a community with similar demographics was important. Community leaders felt they needed to visit an area that reflected our demographic makeup, only larger, but not so large that our delegation couldn’t relate.
I wanted to visit a community that has taken its own intercity visits. It was important to me that our first trip was to a community where civic leaders understand what an intercity trip is and have experienced success from the research and development process. Perhaps most important was selecting a community that knows how to tell their story!
The final decision was based on the input of our partners: the city, county and EDC. It also didn’t hurt to have leaders who had personal and professional connections with Chattanooga and had been part of the transformation process.
What did you learn that you didn’t expect?
The most important lesson we learned was not to expect. This message came through loud and clear from the mayor of Chattanooga who was part of Chattanooga’s inaugural intercity visit 30 years ago. He advised us not to approach the trip with specific goals in mind, but to explore, learn, and “allow the process to get messy.” The messiness is uncomfortable but it encourages healthy dialog that allows meaningful solutions to emerge. We resolved to allow the process to evolve and then become strategic. Of course, this is hard to do for someone with an A-type personality.
Has anything changed since you’ve been back?
While we didn’t enter the trip with specific goals in mind, a lot has happened since we returned. We’ve contracted with MindMixer.com to launch LongviewTexasListens.com, a moderated online forum that facilitates a two-way conversation about key issues. We think this will be a more effective tool than town hall meetings to shape and ultimately win public buy-in for our emerging regional vision.
Also since our visit, the city has appointed an I-20 Task Force to begin addressing redevelopment along the interstate corridor. Our past chairman, who helped champion the intercity visit process, was asked to chair the task force—a perfect example of how strategic alignment works.
Anything new planned for your next trip?
For our visit to Fort Collins, Colo., this fall we plan to add break-out group sessions on more specialized topics such as how to fund redevelopment, affordable housing, zoning and healthcare. After seeing an innovative community bike-share program in Chattanooga, we’re exploring how to become a bicycle-friendly community. As a group we’ll dig deeper into how to enhance our community brand. It’s imperative as we shape the future of Longview that we remain true to the brand and create experiences that stimulate commerce with a vibrant downtown, fun tourism activities and successful redevelopment efforts.
One thing we’ll be sure to keep from last year’s trip is an opening dinner where we assign seats to pair up board members, city department heads and elected officials with their counterparts in our host city. That produced some great knowledge sharing and started us off on the right foot.
Any words of advice for other chambers considering this kind of program?
Plan, plan, plan. I can’t overemphasize the amount of prep time one of these trips takes. They can’t be thrown together. Involve your staff early in the process and learn to delegate. Expect to spend lots of time developing the program with key stakeholders, staff, and the community you are visiting. I leaned heavily on ACCE’s Guide to Intercity Visits and the Regional Planner from Hamilton County, Tenn.
Also, budget time to research your community. It’s important to know the history of your community’s planning process as well as the progress that has been made over the past 20+ years. We produced a “looking back” historical prospectus and a demographic cheat sheet that attendees loved and used throughout the trip. This piece allowed attendees the opportunity to reflect and contrast data with the host community.
Be mentally and emotionally prepared to return feeling overwhelmed and invigorated. Your leadership will have seen first-hand opportunities they want to become a reality tomorrow. Consider having strategies in place to help direct conversations so your organization doesn’t move into “fix it” mode before your community has had a chance to conduct meaningful research.
Finally, I strongly suggest that you join another chamber’s intercity visit to see one executed first-hand. Better yet, take your chairman or chair-elect with you so they fully grasp the concept. I didn’t do this, but wish I had. And make sure your board has your back before embarking on this kind of trip because they inevitably generate some conflicts and tough questions along the way. Remember, conflict can be healthy! It encourages creative thinking which spawns innovation.
The 5-Star Accredited Longview Chamber operates the CVB and Main Street Council for Longview and manages retail and commercial development recruitment and expansion projects.
Kelly Hall, CCE, is a 26-year veteran of the chamber industry and has led the Longview Chamber for eight years. She earned the Certified Chamber Executive distinction in 2010 and currently serves on the ACCE Board of Directors.
Download this article: Field Trip: Chattanooga, Tennessee (2)