From Naysayer to Cheerleader

By Brad McEwen

I haven’t always loved Albany, GA.

Sure I’ve lived here for three decades and consider it my home, but there was a time when I absolutely couldn’t stand being here and longed for the day I could move away to a “real city” and leave the so-called Good Life City in the dust.

I know; it seems kind of hard to image that a guy who has now built a career celebrating the wonderful people and things that make Albany special, once wrote a column for the Albany Journal lambasting the community that has wholeheartedly embraced his family.

But it’s the truth.

Thankfully some time away softened my heart and as I matured I came to really appreciate this place I’m proud to call home. That’s why I’m thrilled every chance I get to sing its praises.

It’s also why I get genuinely excited when I come across other like-minded individuals who share my affection for this area and are just as driven as I am—often more so—to wave the banner of support for this community.

Interestingly, there’s one such kindred spirit—a person who puts a smile on my face the minute I see her —whose story isn’t much different than mine when it comes to learning to love this community.

There are cynics who will inevitably say that Albany Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Executive Director Rashelle Beasley gets paid to praise Albany, but those who truly know her will be happy to tell you that a paycheck really has nothing to do with it.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with my good friend—who, like always, made time for me despite being neck deep in preparation for the annual Snickers Marathon—to discuss her history with the CVB and find out a little bit more about what makes her one of Albany’s greatest champions—despite once being a hater like me.

“It’s kind of funny,” said Rashelle with her trademark smile. “I started Leadership Albany when I worked at the Albany Herald and I was one of the major naysayers of Albany. I was a major naysayer when it came to that Flint RiverQuarium over there. I was like, ‘I just don’t get it. Nobody comes to this town. It’s just a big fish hole and it’s not really going to do anything.’ All of that.

“The whole Albany Tomorrow concept—I was just not impressed. And being at the newspaper it was not for lack of knowledge. It was just the opinion based on the information I had read about.”

Despite her intense negativity, Rashelle agreed to go through Leadership Albany, where she said she ultimately had her eyes opened to the truth about Albany.

“Leadership Albany really changed my perception of things,” she said. “Visiting the school system I was thoroughly impressed with Monroe. In fact, that’s all I could talk to people about whenever I saw them. I know they were so tired of hearing about Monroe, but I mean, it was just really cool what they were doing there.

“And the more I went through Leadership Albany—because it takes you through all aspects of Albany and gives you a taste of government and the school system and of course Discover Albany Day, where you learn about all the things to do in Albany—the more impressed I was.

“One of the most impressive parts of Discover Albany Day is still the most impressive part of Albany today for me. And that’s the Freedom Singers. As soon as Miss Rutha (Harris) opened her mouth that day, I was just in total awe.

“There was just so much about Albany that I didn’t know that I thought I knew—which is usually the case with a lot of naysayers. It’s the fact that they think they know, just like I did, but they really don’t.

“The more I went through Leadership Albany, it just progressively changed the way I felt and the way I saw things.”

Of course, having a change of heart about the community she once derided is one thing; actually ending up in a role where it’s her job to promote Albany and the surrounding area is quite another. Her walking along that path actually began with a different kind of journey—one of the spirit.

“I went on what’s called “Walk to Emmaus,” Rashelle explained. “It’s funny because I had to leave on a Thursday to go on the walk and miss the last hour of our Leadership Albany class. I was freaking out because if you missed one minute of Leadership Albany they counted you absent for the whole day. But Mary (Ligon) and her husband (Jim) had been on the Walk to Emmaus, so she knew what it was and why I had to leave.

“Well a lot of people come out of Walk to Emmaus with a calling to become a pastor or a youth minister, things like that, or just to change their lifestyle altogether. And that’s what I chose. Well, that’s what happened to me. I didn’t choose.”

Rashelle said she left the walk with a certain peace knowing that God had prepared her through Leadership Albany for what was going to happen at Walk to Emmaus and that the experience left her with an entirely new perspective about what was important and what she needed to be doing with her life.

Having been raised by parents who had always been involved in community and who were dedicated to whatever task they were involved with, Rashelle said that throughout her career she had committed herself to numerous organizations and up until the time she went on Walk to Emmaus felt as though that was what she should be doing.

But after finishing the walk, she realized it was time for a change and that God had a different plan for her.

“During Emmaus I wrote down everything I was involved with,” she said. “I was involved with church, every single thing going on at my kid’s school, Junior Women’s Club, Red Cross, Relay for Life, the Light the Night Leukemia walk. I mean I wrote down everything. And the lady next me goes, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m writing down all this stuff that I’m involved with that’s taking up way too much of my time.’

“And so when I got back, I quit everything. And I was vice president of the Junior Women’s Club at the time, fixing to be president. But I had to let it go.

“I kind of just started over and I just prayed. I knew that I wanted to do something that would help me change people’s perspective or perception of Albany. So I just prayed.

“I told Him if I could get paid for it, great, but I would do whatever volunteer opportunity I had to that would fit within that goal of what I wanted to do.”

About two weeks after that tough decision fortune smiled on a newly reinvigorated Rashelle when she learned the CVB was looking for someone to manage the soon-to-be-opened Bridge House Welcome Center on Front Street.

“I thought, ‘What better way you know,” Rashelle said. “So I talked to (then CVB director) Lisa (Riddle) and it was scary. It was a huge pay decrease. Huge. But I thought, ‘It doesn’t hurt to talk to somebody.’ So I interviewed with Courtney Brinson and Wendy Martin and I didn’t even get back across the street to the Albany Herald before they were calling me saying I was the one.

“And you know, I was just like, ‘Oh crap!’ And so I prayed about it and negotiated with it for about a month and I just finally decided that I had asked for it and God was giving it to me. I knew I could make ends meet. There’d just be a lot of sacrifice. So I took the leap of faith.”

While she had some trepidation about leaving a position at the Herald that she not only enjoyed but had been successful at, Rashelle said it didn’t take long for her to realize that she had made the right choice, as her new position afforded her the opportunity to work with her friend and former Herald co-worker and allowed her to take on an exciting new challenge starting the new welcome center.

“Lisa and I had always been a great team, even at the Herald, and then here,” Rashelle said. “Our personalities are totally opposite so therefore we complimented each other and we were able to make great strides.

“I took on the big project with Lisa of moving us [the CVB] in here [welcome center] and I had to develop the gift shop. And at the time the state had started a program where we could apply to be a regional visitor’s information center, so I had that task too.”

Despite the challenge, Rashelle told me she saw success right off the bat, which she attributes to being part of a good team and being in a role that allowed her to be creative and passionate.

“It was just like a dream come true honestly,” she said. “I got to talk to everybody who walked in the door—people who were visitors, and people who were local and were just curious about the welcome center, folks who were wondering why we needed it, was it a waste of money, that kind of stuff.”

While she was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet with so many different people, even by her own account she said she was a little taken aback by the numbers of people who came through the welcome center in short order.

“It was amazing to go from being over at the Chamber and going from having just a few thousand visitors to almost 15, 20 thousand,” she said. “I think our first year we had like 15,000 visitors come through the door and now we’re seeing like 20. It’s a huge accomplishment.”

And one that Rashelle still cherishes even though her duties have expanded far beyond simply running a welcome center.

“It was very rewarding,” she told me. “As welcome center manager it was awesome to be able to talk to people about Albany and see the excitement about the things we have to do and helping them plan for a week here.

“They’d come in so excited that like Sherwood filmed here and they’d seen all the movies and they’d find out you can map out all the sites. It was just fun to be able to plan people’s days and be able to share.

“But becoming the director was not what I had intended to do by any means.”

Whether she was planning for that or not, when Riddle left the organization Rashelle, and her enthusiasm for her community, was the perfect fit to take up the mantle and begin to work on a broader scale to not only improve the experience for every visitor who came to the community, but also to address other locals who were naysayers as she had once been.

To address that issue Rashelle said she began speaking to area civic groups as well as developing a regular newsletter, that is still in circulation today, that has helped to spread a greater understanding of the good things in the Albany area and the impact tourism can have on the community.

“Each newsletter starts with a story about someone who visited that week,” Rashelle explained. “That lets people see what’s going on and it keeps them engaged with the fact that people are coming here and enjoying themselves.

“With that, and when I speak at civic organizations—telling them about some of the things going on—they do have those ‘ah-ha’ moments.”

Despite a lot of those "ah-ha" moments, Rashelle told me it’s been a bit of an uphill climb over the years trying to get the locals to see the value in things like a welcome center and supporting tourism.

“I knew the mindset was a problem because I was part of that problem,” she said. “I knew it was a problem, but it was still very eye-opening when we first opened that place and you read the Squawkbox about, ‘This is the stupidest thing ever!’ So it became a mission you know. It was like, ‘How can we drive home the mission because we’ve got a huge amount of traffic.”

Even with early success Rashelle said there was still a lot of skepticism from local individuals and local businesses. One such example was when the CVB reached out to a local vending company about putting a drink machine in the welcome center because there was really no other place in the area to get a drink. The response she got was that the company didn’t believe there would be enough traffic to justify a machine.

“So I called Coke [which is not local] and they were in my office by the end of the day and we had a vending machine in two days,” she said with a laugh. “Of course now, we have the best relationship with Buffalo Rock. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But it’s just the small things, you know. It was like even business people didn’t see the benefit in what we were doing. And unfortunately I think some business people still struggle with it.

“But it’s a lot better. People actually come to us now. They want us to put things together for them. And we have more people wanting to bring conferences and meetings that they attend to Albany because they can see what we can do, how we go out of our way to make sure every guest feels welcome here and that they get the best experience possible. I think that’s the goal—to create the best experience possible.”

Although local people can clearly see what the CVB team can do and no doubt are impacted by the sheer enthusiasm Rashelle exhibits when talking about the great things happening in Albany, she is quick to point out that while there is a huge value in having the local population support tourism efforts, the organization’s main focus has to be drawing outsiders to the community.

“It’s a fine line for us because the locals are really not our responsibility,” said Rashelle. “But what we do connecting with locals—through social media, through our newsletter and that type of thing—does not take away from our mission and what we are here to do. That enhances it.

“We can spend money on advertising and on drawing people here and on bringing travel writers who write stories, but that one story might have a $100,000 value for us. Whereas when you have people here who have the experience and then they’re telling people about it—posting it on Instagram and on Facebook and they have 3,000 friends and then they share it—that’s priceless you know. It’s like a trickle effect.

“But we’re here to promote to outsiders. If the locals get a glimpse of that and they go and do things here, that’s a bonus. I was in a downtown meeting several years ago and I got attacked; ‘There’s no way you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. I have never seen an ad or a billboard or anything in Albany.’ And I said, ‘I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing because I’m not promoting to you.’

“Our job is to bring people in and have them spend their money here.”

And by accounts that’s exactly what has been happening consistently since Rashelle joined the CVB team.

She said revenue generated from tourism the first year she came on board in 2008 was roughly $170 million. Today that number has swelled to approximately $223 million.

“I feel we’ve been successful,” Rashelle said. “There’s always room for improvement, but I think overall tourism is strong in Albany. Of course we’re always looking to try new things and generate even more interest, and that’s one of the things that I love about this job.

“We can come up with all kinds of different ideas and see what works and what doesn’t work, but it’s just the fun of bringing attention to things and getting crazy if we have to. We can do silly stuff and we don’t look silly. People are just like, “Oh there’s those tourism people.’

“It’s fun. Every day is more fun. There are days that have their challenges, but I’m one of those people that loves coming up with new, out-of-the-box ideas.” Of course coming up with exciting ideas also extends to Rashelle’s other important role as race director for the annual Snickers Marathon that has become a staple of Spring in Albany since its founding a decade ago.

“The marathon is a totally different beast,” she said. “It’s such an adrenaline rush, really. We start planning in June for the next year’s race and it’s always about coming up with a new t-shirt design, t-shirt fabric. We do a new medal every year. And we’re always looking for new ways to enhance the race and new ways to give the volunteers even more.”

That Rashelle would touch on supporting marathon volunteers was no surprise to me, as she has been very public over the years with her praise of the citizens of Albany who work diligently to make sure one of the area’s most important showcases of the community consistently wows guests.

“Somebody said the other day that the only time the community comes together is when we are in a state of devastation—floods, tornadoes,” Rashelle said. “But honestly that’s not true. The community certainly comes together for one day every year during March for the Marathon.

“We have volunteers from all walks of life, from all civic organizations, schools. Everybody wants to be involved. We get the police department. We get the city, the county, the DOT [Department of Transportation], Reeves Construction, Oxford. We work with so many different organizations to make this happen and not just local residents. It’s businesses getting involved and donating, organizations of all types.

“And what they do for us, it’s a big deal. The Marathon is always a special day and it’s absolutely one of THE best ways to show off our community. It’s stressful to be race director because you want everything to be perfect. But it’s so rewarding when race day comes and you see so many people out there excited to be a part of it—the runners, the volunteers, the citizens who come out to cheer the runners on, the folks who come to the Mardi Gras celebration after. It’s just an awesome day.”

Indeed, while it seems every time I see my buddy Rashelle she’s got a smile on her face—regardless of whatever drama she’s having to deal with that day—I can think of no other time when I saw her as happy as she was after the 2016 marathon—which unlike last year’s post storm race, stands as a high water mark for community involvement and excitement.

I was so pumped to see the sheer joy on her face that day that I actually wrote about it in a column during my time with the Albany Herald.

To me, that smiling, energetic—despite the exhaustion she should have felt after spending the better part of two whole weeks working tirelessly to prepare for race day—post marathon Rashelle is the embodiment of what has always impressed me about her. Whether talking to a lowly reporter, a visiting dignitary or a random person on the street, Rashelle has always got a smile on as she works her Albany-loving magic.

Sure it’s her job to promote this community, but her excitement and enthusiasm is borne out of passion for what she does and a deep-seeded love of this community. I’m absolutely convinced that even if it wasn’t a way for her to earn a living, there’d be no greater champion and cheerleader for Albany, GA.

“I’ve had numerous people ask me about this and they’ve told me that they know I could go do this somewhere else—and I have had opportunities to go do it somewhere else—but I don’t want to do it anywhere else,” Rashelle said as we wrapped up our chat. “A lot of people say, ‘You’re paid to love Albany.’ No, I’m not, not really. It really is my passion. It’s a bonus that I get to work and get paid for it, but this certainly isn’t a get rich thing by any means. It’s passion that drives this.”

As someone else who loves this community and wants to see it continue to grow and prosper, it makes sense that I would be drawn to Rashelle. And I can say with total conviction that there’s no other person I’m prouder to see representing Albany and working to draw visitor’s to this great place—a place thankfully filled with awesome people like Rashelle Beasley.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen