Millennials Work From Inside City to Change Image of Montgomery, Ala.

Young Montgomery natives are building their lives while working directly inside the Chamber or the city government to improve it.

by Brad Harper, Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. / August 16, 2017
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(TNS) -- Meg Lewis wakes up knowing that plenty of people want her to give up on her job. After all, she has the internet.

The Montgomery native spends her days – and sometimes nights – helping to organize unique events in her hometown and spreading the word about some of the positive things going on in the city. But like most days, she’s starting this one with a workout in the parking lot of her downtown loft apartment.

She concedes she may have family members who still don’t believe it’s safe to visit downtown, much less live here, and she shakes her head at comparisons to “the streets of New York in the '70s” from people who say the Capital City is beyond help.

She sees those kinds of comments on social media all the time. But that’s not the city she lives and breathes every day.

“Sometimes the trolls bring me down,” said Lewis, who works for the Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitor Bureau. “The response to that is for me to get out of my office or get out of my house, get off of Facebook and go connect with other people who are interested in making things happen.”

Lewis is one several 20- and 30-something Montgomery natives who are now building a life in the area while working directly inside the Chamber or the city government to improve it.

‘Make it their own’

A few doors down from Lewis’ office, Temisha Young was going over the city’s new South Montgomery development plan and praising the potential of an overlooked part of town. There’s a mix of planned walking paths and recreation alongside affordable housing, all given a shot in the arm by the One Center’s rebirth as an education hub.

“(The plan) is really just a guide,” Young said. “Now it’s up to (people) in the community to take that plan and make it their own.”

Young grew up in South Montgomery and her parents still live there, but she moved to Atlanta after leaving high school. A decade later, she came back to the area – with a fresh perspective – and said the city looked a lot different. Now she laughs when her mom complains about the traffic here.

So, why move back? It’s just a more appealing place for a young family, she said — with one exception.

“Our education system is segregated,” Young said. “A lot of people don’t like to talk about that, but I think that is the reality. When you can go to school with people and interact with them on a day-to-day basis, then they’re not as scary or foreign to you. Any way that we can break those walls down and create a more holistic community is going to get us out of the mindset that we’re currently in.”

She’s trying to help by starting a podcast to tell the stories of the people of South Montgomery, while juggling her other duties as the Chamber’s head of diversity and inclusion. It’s a job that makes it impossible to ignore the city’s problems.

Yet she remains baffled by the amount of negativity she sees online.

“I don’t know what was programmed in us to think that our city was so horrible,” Young said. “I don’t know if it stretches back to the Civil Rights movement and the negative things that people know in the history of Montgomery, that we don’t love our city the way that we should. I know people come here and (say), ‘Oh, this is the greatest city,’ and they have a great time. But we’re the ones saying there’s nothing to do and we don’t like it.”

Living on the cloud

Griffith Waller has a smile on his face as he rushes through City Hall, shifting video equipment from shoulder to shoulder to unlock doors. It’s mid-morning and he finished shooting a web series with Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange just in time to duck into a meeting about the rollout of city data online.

The 29-year-old city public relations specialist looks like he’s living the dream, and there’s plenty of evidence around to prove it. He beams when he talks about meeting current department director Michael Briddell during his middle school career day, and Briddell still has an earnest thank-you note that Waller wrote around that time.

Over the past year Waller has played a key role in shepherding municipal information onto a public website – from street pavings to building permits, making Montgomery one of the first in the state to launch such a service. Of course, he won’t tell you that. Instead he talks about IT expert Savio Dias, designer Kim Wright and city department heads who worked to provide the data. And the self-effacing Waller says he often feels like “a fish out of water” when he sits in on meetings with local techies as part of the effort.

But when Strange said he wanted to “get on the cloud,” Waller volunteered.

It’s the latest step in a career that has led Waller from Montgomery, to Houston, to Washington, but he said he never doubted that he’d come home. Especially when he was crashing on a friend’s couch in the nation’s capital to try to save money.

“Man, cost of living in DC was ridiculous,” he said. “We were in a one-bedroom basement apartment for $1,400. It was stuff like that.”

Waller said moving back to his hometown gave Waller a chance to take ownership and make a difference. In other cities it felt like “anything interesting” had already been done, he said.

Now he’s living here and creating his own future — and helping to run the city’s social media accounts, which inspire plenty of negative replies. How does he handle those? Waller shrugs. “You can give the cheesy marketing message, or you can just be yourself and say, ‘Look, I’m just like you. I’m in the same boat. But I’m trying to make something cool happen here.’ ”

Making a mark

Outside Waller’s window, another Montgomery native was working on something geared to the city’s four-legged residents.

Public Works project manager Wesley Cox, 32, stood at the entrance to the new downtown dog park and sized up the concrete work. It’s one of dozens of projects the soft-spoken Cox is involved with around the city, an opportunity to make his mark on a hometown that has already changed a lot since he was a kid.

Now he’s married here with two young kids, and he’s never really thought about living somewhere else. Sure, people have plenty of negative things to say about Montgomery, but he doesn’t hear those types of things from the people he cares about the most.

“It’s not so much family and friends,” Cox said. “Most of my family is here in town, and friends that enjoy Montgomery. I see negative things from others.”

Finding opportunities

Lewis spends this afternoon in meeting after meeting, each involving something crucial to the city’s future. Laying out the events around an Air Force conference that’s expected to bring in thousands, including some of the world’s top tech talents. Organizing a celebration of local restaurants. Putting together a national media campaign.

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At each, the conversation pauses when the subject of money comes up. This time, the topic is what prize to give the winner of a hackathon when a sponsor isn’t allowed. “What are we supposed to give them, hugs and kisses?” joked a frustrated Lewis. (They went with a heavyweight title belt designed by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.)

Unlike many chambers of commerce, this one shares a pool of money across all branches. That means that any dollar spent on an event is a dollar that could have been used to help lure a new company to Montgomery, among other things. So, Lewis said they try to give local businesses some unique sponsorship “opportunities” instead of throwing cash at everything.

“You’d better look at it that way,” Lewis laughed.

It’s well after 6 p.m. when her last meeting wraps up, this one with an officer who was recently moved to Maxwell Air Force Base. He was there to share some first impressions of the city – good and bad. The bottom line was that the incoming officers want to be better informed about what to expect before they arrive, and where to find military-friendly businesses.

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A back-and-forth led to a list of new projects for Lewis. None of the officer’s negative impressions were very surprising, but she was happy for the information. And ready to get to work.

“There’s some sort of an idea that because we’re not perfect, we’re not good enough. And so let’s don’t do anything and instead let’s just be negative about it,” Lewis said. “No place is perfect. The places you go to vacation have their challenges, too.

“The difference between us and them is they’re out there going, ‘Yes, we are great. This is what’s great about it.’ We have to start doing that for ourselves.”

©2017 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.