By Otis White.
I’ve met a lot of mayors over the years. Some were smart, a few were philosophical, many were shrewd, but only a handful were strategic. One of the few, Frank Martin, died in 2012.
Martin was the mayor of Columbus, Georgia who, in a single term in office in the early 1990s, changed his city. Yes, you read that right: He served a single four-year term. (It was his decision. He finished his term to acclaim but chose not to run again.) And in that single term he set in motion changes that are still being felt, 20 years later.
I met Mayor Martin when I was researching a book about the remarkable turnaround of Columbus’ downtown, which was a desolate and hopeless place in the 1970s, only to be reborn three decades later as a thriving business, cultural, entertainment, and educational center. I wanted to know how these things happened, and that led me to the political leader who had changed the arc of the city. (If you’re interested in the book, you can find it here.)
We had three long conversations, one by phone, one in his office, and a third fora podcast. Each time we talked I was impressed by how his mind worked. He had the ability to look at something familiar (the city he had lived in his entire life or the government he presided over), see assets and opportunities that others couldn’t, and move decisively toward them. And, in a nutshell, that’s what great strategists do.
And one more thing: He knew how to change people’s minds. That’s important because, in civic work, it’s not enough to see the right thing to do. You have to bring others along with you. Martin knew that words weren’t enough. If you wanted to change people’s minds, you needed actions as well. Bold actions.
When he became mayor in 1991, Columbus was at a very low ebb. For 15 years, a handful of business and civic leaders had been searching for ways to turn around the downtown, without much success. For one thing, there was the sheer size of the problem: Block after block of empty storefronts, sleazy bars and porn shops, and some of the tackiest retail imaginable. The good stores had moved out of downtown in the 1960s, and many of the offices had joined them in the 1970s. (No one lived downtown then.) A few new projects had been built–a convention center, a hotel, a new office building or two–but the tide was still running out for downtown.
And beyond that, there was a huge impediment to change, which was the citizens’ deep-seated cynicism. After seeing decades of decline, they thought the downtown was hopeless and any effort to help it was throwing good money after bad. In fact, they thought the same of the city itself. In the citizens’ minds, Columbus was, if not declining, going nowhere and nothing could change it.
So, where do you begin when you’re trying to save a city that doesn’t believe in itself? Martin’s answer was to start with a bang, with what he called his “man on the moon project”–a project so ambitious and difficult to achieve that, when it does succeed, the civic self-doubt fades away. He found such a project on his first day in office, when he opened a closet in the mayor’s office and discovered a complete set of plans for a civic center. A previous mayor had commissioned the plans and then quietly rolled them up and stowed them away, defeated by the project’s politics and finances.
That, Martin decided, would be his “man on the moon project.” He would build the civic center that a line of mayors had talked about but been unable to deliver. To make a long story short, he did just that, and Columbus has an impressive new civic center today. But Martin didn’t stop there. While he was working on the civic center project, he put together a huge bond referendum that in addition to financing the civic center would make sewer improvements, build sidewalks and parks, and construct a major new softball complex near downtown. He campaigned furiously for the referendum and got it passed.
From the outside, this may not seem like much, but in the sleepwalk that was Columbus in the early 1990s, it was a huge awakening. And Martin was just getting started. The sewer project had an interesting feature, he came to understand. It involved running miles of storm water pipes alongside the Chattahoochee River. And here’s where Martin’s knack for strategic thinking came in: Why not turn this sewer project into a major new public asset by placing a river walk on top of it? (The idea wasn’t his, but he once he heard it, he grasped what it could mean.) He approached the city’s foundations and businesses, and they agreed to put up the additional money. The result is one of the largest and most attractive urban river walks in America today, stretching more than 20 miles.
And the softball complex? It became the way that Columbus got a share of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when it served as host for the women’s softball competitions. The city that doubted itself was suddenly seeing itself on international broadcasts, with its beautiful new riverfront improvements as a setting.
I could go on and on about Martin’s accomplishments and how they laid the groundwork for the downtown’s revival. (Again, if you’re interested, read the book.) But at the center of things was a civic leader who combined the mind of a strategist with a shrewd understanding of human nature and what it took to move people.
And these are the things the best leaders do: They see unnoticed assets, find ways of making them greater and far more apparent, and bring others along on the journey. Cities need an army of such people, but sometimes it takes only a few. Or, at the right time and in the right place, just one.