Like the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, ChamberRVA – the chamber of commerce in Richmond, Virginia – is no stranger to the intercity visit concept.
Each year for the last quarter-century, delegates from the Richmond region have traveled to another city to get inspired. This past April, 190 delegates traveled to Pittsburgh to study a number of relevant interests areas, including innovation and entrepreneurism, neighborhood development, outdoor living and workforce development. And in 2016, delegates visited San Diego, where regional collaboration and transportation were hot topics.
Bold leadership, a downtown resurgence and the city’s “cool factor” influenced ChamberRVA’s decision to select Nashville in 2015. The trip marked the chamber’s second visit in less than a decade, which can certainly be viewed as a nod to Nashville’s growth and progress.
Richmond leaders want to continue improving their community in many of the areas where Nashville has experienced success. In addition to its booming downtown, Richmonders were attracted to Nashville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and its education model.
The opportunity to explore the Nashville Entrepreneur Center ranks high on the list of top takeaways for ChamberRVA. While intercity visits to Raleigh in 2010 and Denver in 2013 called attention to the need for a strong entrepreneurial support ecosystem in the Richmond region, its 2015 Nashville visit helped spark action.
Changes to small business services offered by ChamberRVA were already in the works, but seeing Nashville’s Entrepreneur Center model reinforced the need for a similar focus in Richmond, says Richard Wintsch, vice president of leadership development at ChamberRVA. “The trip provided good momentum for us to move forward with that initiative,” he says.
ChamberRVA launched Thrive, its reworked small business development center, after its 2015 visit. Just like Nashville's Entrepreneur Center, ChamberRVA wants its Thrive program to serve as a “front door for entrepreneurs.” The program offers one-on-one guidance, education and a wide variety of business and community information, to entrepreneurs and small business owners.
A Thrive pilot program launched in 2015 with just five mentors. That same year, ChamberRVA helped 60 small businesses through a total of 200 mentoring hours. Just a year later, there were 35 mentors and 210 mentees, assisted through 1250 mentoring hours during 700 sessions. Businesses that Thrive served generated $5.8 million in total revenue and created or retained more than 400 jobs. And if it’s any indication of interest, session requests in January 2017 were up 800 percent from a year prior.
Though Thrive has indeed thrived since its relaunch, there’s still room for improvement, says Wintsch. “One thing Nashville does really well, that we’re still working on, is a roadmap for entrepreneurs once they’re in the community,” he said.
Enhancing the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is essential to placemaking efforts. “That’s why we’re so excited for Pittsburgh this year. They’re like us in that they’re trying to leverage being a growing city in the innovation entrepreneurism space,” Wintsch said.
From entrepreneurism to education
In the not so distant past, Metro Nashville Public Schools were on the brink of state takeover. Significant strides have been made since ChamberRVA’s 2006 visit—now Nashville’s school system is drawing international attention for its takeover turnaround. Richmonders were intrigued by Metro Nashville Public Schools’ model for transformation, collaboration and success; so much so that they created a track of programming in their 2015 inter-city visit agenda to study the Nashville Academies and the Nashville AfterZone Alliance.
The result of collaboration between the business community and the education community, Nashville Academies – of which there are 41 – serve nearly 20,000 high school students. More than 250 businesses and nonprofits have partnered with Nashville Academies to help students learn through the lens of a specific career or academic theme.
“A college education isn’t necessary to be successful,” Wintsch said. “By involving the business community, we can show students that good careers and a good income are available without a traditional four-year degree.”
Richmond wants its business community to know what technical programs are available to students. And it wants its students – beginning in middle school – to know what career options are available in the Richmond community. Career tracks offered by Nashville Academies provide structure in the school system, which is a model that appealed to ChamberRVA and its delegates. Curriculum is designed to marry student interest and business needs. Students get real world experience and can earn credentials, better preparing them to enter the workforce upon graduation.
ChamberRVA and the broader Richmond community are currently developing workforce solutions, inspired in part by its 2015 Nashville intercity visit. Its 2017 trip to Pittsburgh includes two tracks of programming dedicated to the topic.
To position today’s students and workers for success tomorrow, the Richmond region needs to continue exploring the future of work, Wintsch said. “To attract and retain talent in our region, we must create workforce opportunities that help all residents acquire career-advancing skills.”
Richmond inspired to be bold
During its 2015 visit, Richmond delegates toured First Tennessee Park – home of the Nashville Sounds minor league baseball team – and Music City Center, the more than two million square foot convention center in the heart of downtown.
These projects leverage the strength of Nashville’s tourism and entertainment industries, raising the city’s profile as a top-tier convention destination while simultaneously enhancing quality of life for people who call Nashville home.
And both projects exemplify the kind of bold leadership, collaboration and strategic vision that Richmonders want in their community. As Richmond continues pursuing opportunities to leverage community assets, Nashville serves as a friendly role model.
The Nashville visit has inspired Richmond, and the Virginia community has sights set on a facelift for its own ballpark—updates that will catalyze development in an already-booming neighborhood.
The progress – and inspiration – won’t stop there. The outcomes from its trip to Pittsburgh later this year will continue to embolden ChamberRVA, its members and the Richmond region.
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