Farewell to Chamber of Commerce President Jim Page, Tuscaloosa’s Great Convener
Jim Page, the President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama since 2011, was reflective but optimistic this week as he prepared to step down Friday to pursue other opportunities and be closer to family in Huntsville.
Page would be the first to deflect credit for the growth of the Chamber and in the community at large during his tenure -- he just led a great team of employees, he says, or got people in a room and fostered discussions that led to positive change eventually.
"I, Jim Page, I don't think I have solved one problem, I haven't answered one serious question alone," he said. "I'm not smart enough to do any of that. But what this organization has done has pull the right people around the table, literally and figuratively, time and time again to address challenges and seize opportunities."
Even so, it's hard to overstate his impact on that organization and, by extension, on countless lives across the region but especially in the Tuscaloosa area.
11 Years of Accomplishments
A small and woefully incomplete list of the Chamber's accomplishments during Page's tenure include moving from rented space on University Boulevard to a modern but humble building on Jack Warner Parkway in 2013, then from that office into their new 43,000-square-foot building on 9th Street in the heart of downtown Tuscaloosa -- prime real estate that the Chamber now owns instead of throwing away money at rent month after month.
He is largely responsible for the creation of the EDGE Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which came to be only after a young Page challenged mayor Walt Maddox and former University of Alabama President Robert Witt about why Tuscaloosa lacked an entrepreneurial incubator.
"That project died about a dozen different deaths before it came to life," Page said of the EDGE. "But because of dogged determination and perseverance, we we kept the band together through good times and bad to make it work and I'm forever proud of that because it's something our community needed. There are countless businesses and and people whose livelihoods have changed because of that facility now."
He and his longtime friend Donny Jones oversaw the growth of the Chamber's West AlabamaWorks program into a nationally recognized workforce development organization, and Page planned and implemented the Chamber's four annual Benchmarking trips to find good ideas in other communities and bring them back home for implementation.
All that and his proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic led the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives to name our local organization their 2021 Chamber of the Year -- just one of the many accolades given to Jim and his team, but an important one.
The Great Convener
Even so, most area leaders will not remember Page's tenure for traditionally Chamber-related things he accomplished, but instead for his regular trips "outside his swim lane," when Page and the Chamber took on the biggest issues the community faces and served as conveners to bring the right problem-solvers into a room and start making plans.
"Make no mistake about it, everything we've done whether it seems like its in our swim lane or not, the reason we weigh in is because at the end of the day, challenges or opportunities are going to affect local economic conditions," Page said. "Naturally in the past, that has included your traditional topics like economic development, workforce development, sometimes infrastructure. But we've realized that other issues that are not your typical "Chamber issues," like crime -- If that's not addressed, if we don't get a handle on that as a community, it's going to have a negative effect on economic conditions."
In 2015, there were dozens of politicians and organizations likely better suited to address our areas dire infrastructure needs, but it was Page and the Chamber who broke the gridlock. They brought the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport together with the Tuscaloosa County Commission and state legislators to eventually create the Tuscaloosa County Road Improvement Commission, which redirected existing taxes to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fund seven transformative infrastructure projects in the area.
During the Chamber's Next Level Series and Next Level Summit last year, they gathered leaders from across the public and private sectors to brainstorm ideas about public safety and crime prevention, issues in the Tuscaloosa City and County Schools, the DCH System and its hospitals and much more.
The full impact of those discussions is yet to been seen, but whether by luck or persistence or just years of relationship-building, it was ultimately the Chamber that convened the right people in the same place to start them.
"If you peel back the onion and all the moving parts and layers of the this organization, at the end of the day, everything we're involved in ultimately leads to the end goal of improving local economic conditions," Page said.
A major reason for Page's interview was to give the longtime leader the opportunity to address unfinished business as he prepares to depart from this role.
Page, who has long said he and the Chamber represent a "sane center" in politics, pulled no punches in criticizing Alabama's "asinine" new permit-less carry law as anti-police and unsafe.
"It's a ticking time bomb and there will be deaths because of that law and some would probably argue their already have been around the state," Page said. "It may not be politically correct to talk about it, and I'm as pro-Second Amendment as anybody you'll ever find, and I fully believe in someone being able to protect himself. But law enforcement not being able to do their job is hamstringing them and the community has to clean up the mess."
Page said workforce development must improve and Tuscaloosa needs to focus on urgently adding affordable child care options, plentiful and affordable workforce housing and improvements in education.
One thing Page knows for sure is that the problems facing the area will not be solved by any individual person or government body, and leaders in the area have to get out of their own way and start cooperating more effectively.
"The biggest issue I've seen -- and this is kind of a nebulous statement, but I've had a front row seat at the show for 11 years -- is limited trust and inconsistent cooperation among various stakeholders in the community," Page said. "Sometimes that's government to government, sometimes it's higher education to government, sometimes it's business community to government but too often you have that 'silo' mentality, some turf protection and skepticism."
"At times, that lack of trust and lack of cooperation and communication has held us back from accomplishing some pretty significant things in the past," Page said. "And we've had a lot of success stories! A lot of the big initiatives I've talked about already took multi-organizational and multi-jurisdictional cooperation, so we have proof in the pudding that when we put our mind to it, we can do it. But we're still held back by that, and it's frustrating."
Page said leaders across the board need to put ego aside and keep collaborating.
"For one community to get something good or have a win does not mean it's a loss for the other. This is one big market, one area, and a rising tide does lift all boats," Page said. "When we have chosen to be a united front, we've been wildly successful."
The focus should not be on who gets what piece of the proverbial pie, Page said, but about working together to make the whole pie bigger, so all slices grow for everyone at the table.
"The frustrating part is when we let personalities and egos and petty politics prevent good things from happening because then we're all standing in a circular firing squad," he said.
Still, Page is optimistic about the future and all the opportunities ahead of West Alabama.
"We have challenges, as every community does, but we've got opportunities and I dare saw we've got more opportunities than most communities do," he said. "But in order to address the challenges and seize the opportunities, we've got to do it together, We've got to put down the guns, literally and figuratively, and we've got to drop the walls of the silos and realize we're all playing for the same team. When we do that, this community can do anything."
A Last Point of Privilege
Anyone who has heard one of Page's speeches has likely heard him ask for a "point of privilege," where he goes off script and, usually, thanks his Chamber staff and the other unsung heroes of the day.
I hope the readers of the Thread will not begrudge me if I take a point of privilege myself and step briefly from my comfort zone of strictly editorial content into the personal.
It has been an honor to cover Jim Page during his tenure at the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, which he has molded into perhaps the most influential organization in the county.
He said he hopes his legacy will be one of challenging the status quo by asking "why not?" and we will strive to do the same at the Tuscaloosa Thread.
We wish Page the best of luck as he shifts into his new role as Executive Vice President of Huntsville's MartinFederal Consulting and thank him for more than a decade of servant leadership here in Tuscaloosa.