Selling Community from the Heart

By Brad McEwen

You know, it’s hard to go more than a week or two of reading the Albany Herald or watching the local news without seeing at least one story related to economic development or job creation in Albany and Dougherty County. It’s even rarer for one of those stories to not feature a comment about or from Albany-Dougherty EDC President Justin Strickland, who’s been a fixture of that organization and very much in the public eye for roughly 10 years.

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time writing those kinds of stories, I’ve naturally gotten to know Justin a little bit—a good bit better than I had during the years when we had merely been acquaintances, bumping into each other at civic or networking functions going back to the days when we were both in banking—and in him I’ve found someone I believe is an incredible champion for our community, whose passion for his hometown is unmatched, and who gets me excited about our future.

In short, I’m glad to know Justin is working hard and is out there spreading the good news about Albany—about my town.

Aside from his seemingly always good nature and his willingness to engage anyone in conversation, Justin is not only extremely bright—with a deep understanding of the important issues surrounding our community and the factors necessary to help Albany and Dougherty continue to grow and prosper—he is simply a good person who loves his friends and neighbors (even the ones he’s yet to meet) and the community they call home.

I recently sat down with Justin to find out a little about what makes him tick and why he’s chosen to make his living in an arena that can be fraught with controversy and in which seemingly everyone is watching his actions and forming an opinion.

“It’s not always easy,” he told me frankly. “It’s not easy when they put your salary on the front page of the newspaper. Not everybody has to deal with that. But I think that’s part of it. I enjoy being in front of our city and county commissions and being able to answer questions that our elected officials have—elected officials that each year chose to invest the community’s dollars back into economic development.

“I care enough about this community to take those shots and get in the ring.

“I love Albany. It’s my home.”

Indeed, Justin, along with his younger sister (now Erin Rehberg), grew up in a house on Whispering Pines Road where his mother and father still reside today. He came up through the Dougherty County School System, first at his neighborhood school, Sherwood Elementary, before moving on to McIntosh, Albany Middle School and finally Albany High.

To hear him speak of his past it’s easy to see where some of his deep affection for Albany comes from, as he described a fairly idyllic childhood, spent enjoying some of the things that attracted him back to the area after graduating from the University of Georgia.

“I have a great family,” he said as soon as I asked him about his life as a child. “My dad worked. My mom worked part-time and was very involved in school, which I appreciate now much more than I did then. She was involved with PTO and volunteering in classes and helping at school.

“I grew up going to Sherwood Church. I grew up playing baseball at Dixie. Everything was right there. We could walk to Dixie or walk to Sherwood for baseball. We walked to church and we walked to school a lot.

“My grandparents lived two blocks behind us—my dad’s parents—so we’d go over there a lot. Yeah, I had a great childhood, a very involved family. We were always very happy.”

While growing up in a happy environment is certainly important, Justin also shared a little bit of the important life lessons that inform him today and said he credits the values he learned from his family during his formative years as being integral to his sense of belonging to a community and his desire to not only work and be independent, but to also create a better environment for others.

“We were very middle, middle class,” he continued. “We weren’t spoiled kids. We knew the value of what we had. I learned the value of working from my dad and being very industrious and trying to learn and do things for myself from him. I mean we spent a lot of Saturdays tearing apart a lawn mower and putting it back together to try and make it work. And working in the yard, things like that.

“That actually led to my first job of cutting grass in the neighborhood. I started in the 6th grade and I can remember I’d drag my mower down the alley to my 6th grade teacher’s house and cut her grass for $15.”

While Justin would continue running that lawn business into high school—and really continue to work and hold down jobs throughout his life (working for the Athens YMCA during college and spending three summers working as a camp counselor at Epworth By the Sea on St. Simon’s Island)—he said he also took some important lessons from his parents about giving back and being active in his community for the betterment of all—lessons I believe greatly inform his role as EDC president.

“I learned the value of hard work from my dad, and being industrious, but I learned the values of being involved in your community and being able to give time that you have back from my mom,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty good way of looking at that. My dad worked full time and my mom part time, but we were always involved and working in the community.

“During the floods of ‘94 and ‘98 we helped run distribution centers for relief efforts. My dad gave a lot of his time during the first flood putting that together. So, yes we were very involved with things.”

In addition to being engaged in volunteer efforts and feeling connected on a civic level through church, school and a tight-knit neighborhood, Justin said he also grew up enjoying a lot of what he feels still makes Albany an ideal place to live today.

“We always did Albany stuff,” he said. “We went to Chehaw. We went swimming at Radium Springs. I was a bat boy for the Albany Polecats.

“I think about the quality of life that you can enjoy here, about how you can have access to anything you want to do within three hours of here. You can get to the beach, get to the big city. You can waterski. You can fish. You can hunt. You can play golf. You can pretty much do any kind of recreational activity that you want to do here. 

“And you can also work for world class industry.”

And just like that our chat about his early years segued right into talking about his present—most of which he spends espousing the virtues of this community—and what has become his mission to make sure that everyone can take pride in the belief that There's Only One Albany.

“It’s a place that I want my daughters to be proud that they’re from when they go to college and that they want to come back to one day,” he said. “And I want your kids to be proud they’re from Albany, not just my kids. I want everybody’s kids to be proud. And when you go out of town I want you to be proud that you’re from Albany. I want you to have pride in your community. That’s what I want. I want people to be proud to be from Albany.”

Where some might see those kinds of comments as being part of a persona Justin has adopted to fit his public role, anyone who spends time with him quickly learns that his beliefs and his conviction about Albany is nothing short of genuine. The fact is he’s always talking about the virtues of his community simply because that’s what’s in his heart. And for that, I think, the community should be grateful.

Of course, before he reached his current point—speaking  at civic functions, addressing community leaders, and championing the community at the state and federal level—he left  Albany for college, not really knowing what he wanted to do or if he’d return after graduation. Thankfully he maintained his connection with his hometown and while in Athens started developing the skills he employs today.

He told me he originally went to college with the thought of being an environmental economics major—figuring that would lead to a job where he split time working both inside and outdoors—but eventually shifted his focus to marketing where he fell in love with many of the concepts he puts to use promoting Albany and trying to spur economic development.

“I moved from the Ag school to business school and majored in marketing because I enjoyed the theory behind taking a product that someone has made and moving it into a marketplace where people actually buy it; that fascinated me,” he explained. “I took every marketing class I could with my major and enjoyed it.”

Justin eventually parlayed that education into a job back in Albany, returning with his high school sweetheart—now  wife and recent Lake Park Elementary School Teacher of the Year Rebecca (Mitchell)—to take a job handling marketing for AB&T.

Interestingly, as pleased as he was to have an opportunity to return to Albany—and as much as he enjoyed his time growing up in here—he shared that he never felt like he and Rebecca made a specific decision to return home, but rather put their trust in God and followed the road that emerged.

“I knew that the good Lord would lead me down the right path,” he said of his decision to return to Albany. “Going back to it, it wasn’t something like, ‘we want to live here,’ or ‘we don’t want to live here.’ It was like, ‘we can live wherever we want.’ She could, being a teacher. She could live really wherever she wanted to and find a job close by. But we got married and I had a job here so there was kind of an expectation for her to get a job here.

“We’ve basically taken opportunities as they’ve presented themselves.”

While he enjoyed his time at the bank and learned a great deal, after a few years another opportunity presented itself, and Justin said he felt compelled to begin the career that has blended all of his talents and his passion for creating something to benefit others.

“I realized that I like to be involved in the community,” he explained. “I liked to know what was going on that was affecting my community and I liked the opportunity to work to help make Albany and Dougherty County even better than I already knew it was.

“I left AB&T because an opportunity to work at the economic development commission presented itself and I knew I was going from selling bank products to selling my hometown.

“I always knew I wanted to do something from a development standpoint where you could see change or create something new. I kind of look back on it now, with the job I have, and say that if you put all the pieces together it led me to the job I have now, where I wanted to pursue being able to build things that people could enjoy, that made quality of life better.”

For Justin, and many others in the community, topping the list of things that make life in this community better for everyone is economic development, which at its core requires a thriving economy driven by new investment and job creation, which is where Justin focuses the lion’s share of his efforts.

As head of the EDC it’s incumbent upon him to help foster an environment where two important groups feel comfortable staking a claim—potential investors from out of town looking to locate a new industry in Dougherty County and existing industries looking to expand their operations.

To that end, Justin is succinct in explaining what he feels are the most important objectives for his office, while also making an important distinction.

“Our mission is to create jobs and investment in our community through recruitment and retention and expansion of industry in Albany and Dougherty County,” Justin explained. “But, we’ve never created one job; we don’t create jobs at the EDC. We don’t add investment to the community. That’s done by companies that employ people and companies that invest in our community.

“We work to help create a community that’s conducive to that. So sometimes it’s hard to gauge that. You can look at it from the standpoint of quantifiable numbers, like do we have job growth? Yes. Do we have investment growth? Yes. But there’s more to it.”

Even with those positives—which include the recent arrival of Webstaurant and its $10 million investment and 250 jobs in Dougherty County or recent expansions at Mars, Proctor & Gamble and Thrush (all which were aided by EDC involvement)—Justin said there’s still a certain portion of his job that’s hard for some people, himself included, to quantify.

Despite that difficulty, or perhaps because of it, Justin spends a lot of time doing what simply comes naturally, which just happens to be something that’s paramount to his success.

“That thing that you can’t judge is that thing that we work very hard for—it’s the attitude about Albany,” he said. “You know, what’s our reputation? What do people think about Albany? That matters.

“We have everything in our community that somebody would look for as an advantage for doing business. We have a regional health care system that sits in the middle of our community. We have a workforce that’s steeped in manufacturing and logistics and has been for quite a while now. (We have) world class manufactures that ship products from here to all over the world and supply consumer goods all over the Southeastern United States. You know, some would say we’re a blue collar town with white collar amenities. We’ve got great banking institutions, churches of every denomination.

“There are great people here too. I think that’s our number one draw. There’s a great sense of family. You can get as involved with the community as you want to get, be as involved as you want to be. There’s nothing really holding you back from that. Albany’s not a hard town to go through. It’s very convenient.

“Really, Albany has a lot to offer.”

Communicating those positives to prospects, however, is only part of the task he wrestles with each day as he looks for ways to improve life in Albany. Of perhaps greater importance—at least to a person like Justin, who feels Albany’s potential with every fiber of his being—is making sure that the entire community sees those things as well and hopefully shares those feelings.

“We have the assets,” he said. “We’ve got a great community. The struggle is that we have so many people that don’t believe it. Trying to convince people that live here how great Albany is is a struggle. I don’t want to sound Pollyanna but trying to get people to see the positive in where they live and talk about that instead of always harping on the negative is difficult.

“I think having people take a more positive outlook on Albany and tell other people more about Albany and be proud that they’re from Albany, is needed. When we bring in the people that may have an interest is opening a business in the community, they’ve got to feel, from the people that live here, that they want to be here and want to be here for a long time. They need to feel that vibrancy from the community. That’s important.”

To drive that point home Justin stressed to me that he is repeatedly told during his dealings with companies, site selectors and developers looking at Albany as a destination for industry growth and expansion that a considerable amount of time is spent learning about a community through the local news, viewing social media posts and talking to existing business owners and others in the community, which to Justin means it’s imperative that the community is putting forth positive energy.

“The first thing they do when they are evaluating finalist cities for project is they read the city commission meeting minutes or they read the front page of the newspaper,” he said. “Then the next thing they do is they come to the community and they go to the front desk of the hotel and they ask the clerk, ‘why do you like living here?’ Or they go to the host at the restaurant and say ‘what makes Albany great, why do you like living here?’ And if they say ‘I can’t wait to leave, nobody likes it here,’ is anybody ever going to bring a company here?

“So, we’ve got to change the way we think as citizens of Albany and Dougherty County to encourage that growth. Nobody wants to locate a business or expand a business in a community that doesn’t like itself. We’ve got a community self-esteem problem that we’ve got to change. Really the way to do that is to be more appreciative of what we have. And we have a lot to be proud of.”

That assessment of this community is indicative of many of the conversations I’ve had with Justin over the past few years and it’s nearly impossible for me to spend any appreciable amount of time with him without the conversation turning to how much he loves his community and how he desperately wishes that feeling could be shared by everyone.

“The thing that I hold onto, and I say it a lot is, my dad told me one time, ‘how would you like to be known as the person who had potential,’” Justin asked rhetorically. “That’s kind of how I view the work that we do here. How does Albany like to be known as a community that has potential? Are we living up to that? Are we capitalizing on the amenities that we have and are we focusing on the incredible quality of life you can enjoy here? Or is all we care about the last negative news story we saw, or the last bad thing we heard about somebody. And are those the stories we’re telling?

“I say, let’s not be the city that has potential; let’s live up to that potential and let’s be outstanding. Let’s be a place that people want to come back to after college, after high school. Let’s be a place people want to live. Let’s work to create a community that can be proud of itself, that people want to be a part of—that people pour their energy into to make it even more energetic and lively.

“I don’t think the community’s perfect, but I’m trying to use the time I have to work on things to make us better and encourage people to do the same. 

“We need our people who have lived here for a while to take that mantra on too, of loving the place they live in. And that will help us grow industry. When the people speak about how positive Albany is and how great a community it is, and strengthen the magnetism that can be here, that’s when I think we’ll start seeing incredible things.”

I left my interview with Justin not only filled with a bevy of interesting information about a person I admire, I left (as I seem to always do) feeling a buzz about Albany. I can truly say having someone like Justin Strickland out there working hard for me and my community only strengthens my feeling that my children will indeed be proud to say, “I’m from Albany.”

Connect with Brad - 229.405.7212 - Brad.McEwen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen