After hearing from dozens of civic leaders in Asheville, North Carolina this week, some of the Tuscaloosa area's most prominent figures are weighing what works well there and how those strategies could be duplicated back home.

The journey was the fourth Benchmarking Trip organized by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama after trips to Greenville, South Carolina in 2017, Lexington, Kentucky in 2018 and Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2019.

In a wrap-up session Tuesday morning, Allstate Agent Michele Coley led the trip's roughly 80 attendees in a frank discussion about their biggest takeaways from Asheville.

"As a city, we have to decide how we are going to go to business and you have to be able to communicate that," said Tripp Powell of Powell Enterprises. "What are those things for us? What is our elevator pitch? If somebody comes in and says 'I have this new industry or I have this great idea, tell me why I should come to Tuscaloosa,' what are the five things we've got to rattle off?"

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The group also agreed that a consistent message is almost worthless without unity among the county's stakeholders, including local governments, business leaders and area organizations.

"When I look at Tuscaloosa, I see a six-, seven- or eight-headed monster," said local attorney Bryan Winter. "We don't sit down together and make things happen. The mayor's got a plan, the city council's got a plan, and I don't even know the county's plan. We have the [Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority], the Chamber, Northport's headed its own way, we've got PARA issues, we've got a library we want to improve -- but we can't get everybody to sit down at the table and work together and put their egos aside and make things happen."

With most of the trip's attendees back at work in Tuscaloosa County Wednesday afternoon, Chamber President and CEO Jim Page said the next step is to connect the dots gathered not just from Asheville, but from all four Benchmarking Trips into a concrete plan for the development of our area.

"We saw some impressive things and heard no shortage of information," Page said in an email. "After having time to reflect on it all, though, we must find those nuggets of inspiration that lead to actionable results here in our community."

With that in mind, the Chamber will not lead another Benchmarking Trip in 2022. Instead, Page said, they will host an off-site retreat somewhere nearby, likely within Alabama, to digest lessons learned from the four previous trips and shape the organization's plans for the future.

"That timely process will not only help the Chamber chart its next five-year strategic plan but will give a structured process for many public and private partners to collaborate on the most pressing issues in our region," Page wrote.

Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for more updates from the Chamber as they are released and, if circumstances allow, comprehensive coverage of the 2022 Retreat as it happens.

For other updates from Asheville, check out the Thread's coverage of Day One here and the whirlwind agenda of Day Two here.

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