CEOs for Cities workshop draws ‘change makers’ from around the country

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Attendees of the CEOs for Cities conference took a tour of downtown Greenville led by Mayor Knox White. Photo by Jack Robert Photography.

Joe Slavens, chief executive of Northwest Bank & Trust Co., a three-branch bank based in Davenport, Iowa, visited Greenville for the first time to attend the spring workshop of CEOs for Cities May 15-17.

“The hospitality has been incredible,” he said between sessions at the Avenue, downtown Greenville’s newest event venue. “It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people.”

CEOs for Cities, a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization, promotes ways of improving cities. It usually puts its meetings in larger cities, but called its national network of “city change makers” to Greenville at the invitation of Mayor Knox White, who has participated in its events in other cities for many years.

Hosting the group was “another opportunity to showcase what we have in our city, and to a wider audience of people who are opinion leaders in their own communities,” White said. “They go back and tell the Greenville story, and only good things can come from that.”

In addition, he said, Greenville can always learn from the experiences of other metro areas.

About 225 people from 23 states — such as city and chamber officials, business executives, and nonprofit leaders — attended the three-day workshop at various downtown venues to share, hear, and discuss ideas for urban renewal.

One of them was Karen Radcliff, a vice president with Hamilton County Tourism Inc., which promotes tourism and community development in a four-city region of Indiana north of Indianapolis.

Asked for her impression of Greenville, Radcliff said, “It seems like anymore, in order for a city to compete, you have to have trail systems. You have to have water features. You have to have beautiful downtowns that are not boarded up. You have to have breweries and wineries. And it seems Greenville has done that to a really great degree, more so than I’ve seen in other places.”

Activities included a panel with Pete Selleck, president of Greenville-based Michelin North America; Knudt Flor, chief executive of BMW Manufacturing Co. near Greer; and Jane Robelot, a Greenville resident who used to co-anchor “CBS News This Morning.”

Another panel included the mayors of Burlington, Vt.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Savannah, Ga.; and Fayetteville, Ga.

Speakers included Ryan Popple, chief executive of Proterra, a manufacturer of battery-powered buses with a factory in Greenville, and Christian Sottile, architecture dean at the Savannah College of Art and Design and designer of the Grand Bohemian Hotel planned next to Falls Park.

Also speaking were James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, and his wife, Deborah Fallows, who have been traveling around the country since 2013, telling stories of how America is reinventing itself.

The workshop was a homecoming of sorts for Melanie Cannon of Milwakuee. She grew up in Simpsonville and Greenville, where her mother, Ruby Bennett, still lives.

The 35-year-old Cannon is now a vice president with a foundation operated by Dohmen Co., a Milwaukee-based company that provides services for life sciences firms, among other things.

Cannon said she wanted to learn more about how the private and public sectors can cooperate to stimulate Milwaukee’s economy.

She said the foundation she works for hopes to change the traditional practice in philanthropy where “you cut a check, you make donations, and you have these nonprofit organizations continually have to beg for money.”

Instead, the Dohmen Company Foundation wants to fund businesses with a “social mission” that can be self-sustaining by generating their own revenue, Cannon said.

The graduate of the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health said she spent a lot of time in downtown Greenville, where her mother operated a staffing agency on McBee Avenue.

“So to see where downtown has come from the 1980s, 1990s, to where it is now, it’s an amazing journey,” she said.

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