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Election years can be stressful for many. An election year during a global pandemic? We are all stressed, but it is going to be ok, and I will tell you why. If you’ve followed my column, you know that I frequently reference the eleven signs that a community will succeed outlined in the book “Our Towns”, by James and Deborah Fallows. In case you missed it, “Our Towns” is more or less a summation of their 54,000-mile journey around America in a single-engine plane to discover what was working and what wasn’t in the towns from coast to coast that don’t normally make the nightly news.

I think it is a good time to reiterate the No. 1 sign that the Fallows list as a key indicator that communities, large or small, are working the best: divisive national politics seem a distant concern. According to the Fallows, “overwhelmingly the focus in successful towns was not on national divisions but on practical problems that a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was in.” Here is the good news ... if the Fallows are right, then we are going to be just fine.

This week marked the close of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Innovation Academy. It was a privilege to participate in this inaugural program as one of the greater Tullahoma area’s community champions. We learned Monday that our pitch for an innovative, transformative, and bankable strategy to benefit our community ranked 3rd amongst all of the competing teams throughout the TVA’s entire service area, spanning across seven southeastern states. This was no small feat given that we were punching well above our weight class, competing against some real heavy hitters: Knoxville, Memphis, Bowling Green, Ky., Oxford, Ms., The Shoals, Huntsville, Ala., and other major metro areas.

The very first task that the TVA had us complete, way back in the pre-pandemic month of January, was to create a stakeholder register of sorts by identifying all of the organizations within our area working to address the spectrum of challenges the community faces. Our spreadsheet was really, really full. The Tullahoma area has no shortage of incredibly smart and talented individuals who genuinely care about leaving the world a bit better, to paraphrase Emerson.

The problem is, even with so many stellar organizations and individuals all working in the right direction, the right hand still doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing. Replicate work, crossed wires, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities are frequent occurrences.

To be honest, the nearly year-long journey wasn’t always easy. We definitely didn’t come up short when it came to identifying the number of challenges our community is facing either. The truth can hurt, yet in my mind, those realizations were the ultimate benefit of participating in the Academy. You can’t fix something until you know it needs fixing.

Then the pandemic hit, bringing a whole new set of challenges along with it. It was unfortunate that the Innovation Academy was only able to meet once in-person due to the outbreak of the virus, but with stakeholder register in hand, local officials were immediately able to quickly and efficiently rally all organizations to tackle the new challenges posed by the pandemic in a truly collaborative way. As a case in point, Motlow’s Department of Workforce Innovation worked closely with the City and its downtown organization to quickly provide free websites with online sales features and training in digital media marketing, as well as free online courses for anyone financially impacted by a loss of income. It was during this time that the MotlowTrained Community Collaborative was formed, consisting of leaders in economic and community development throughout Motlow’s 11-county service area to address challenges that we all face together.

County, city, and political lines have fallen to the wayside as our local government officials and community partners continue to collaboratively meet the challenge of helping our local businesses and nonprofits get through the fiscal realities of the pandemic. The focus remains on practical problems that our community can feasibly address together, rather than national divisions.

I commend our City Administrator, Jennifer Moody, for her ability to still set work direction, resolve conflicts, and remove obstacles - all while simultaneously fostering a culture of collaboration in our community. In particular, she has worked tirelessly and diligently behind the scenes to assist the downtown businesses with opening safely and successfully. If you are feeling stressed from the year 2020’s one-two punch of pandemic and politics, check out the outdoor entertainment events in our downtown that are garnering media attention across the southeast, only made possible through community collaboration. The cherry on top? Thanks to Ms. Moody’s leadership and collaborative efforts, downtown businesses, including London’s Bar and Grill, have begun donating a portion of event proceeds to local charitable organizations. It’s a win-win for everyone.