The HALLmark Vision – Let’s Dream Big

I attended a manufacturers’ meeting recently at the Warren Featherbone Company, expecting to enter a sad and hollow building. You may recall that the local Featherbone Company recently “went out of business,” having survived by a thread in the baby-apparel industry much longer than anyone could have imagined. The one-two punch of Chinese competition and dwindling trade restraints has put a hurting on many more American manufacturers before Featherbone.

But there was Featherbone’s chairman, Gus Whalen, still standing ­ and in fact practically brimming with enthusiasm ­ as he promoted his company’s next life as an innovative business and manufacturing incubator for entrepreneurs as part of a proposed project led by Lanier Technical College. Around me, you could almost feel the energy and optimism humming in the old building’s bones. Whether by accident or not, an old alarm bell mischievously sounded off a couple of times during the presentation, almost like an “Amen!” to each sales pitch to the crowd.

In addition to being a respected businessman, Gus is an excellent author who has written a book about companies reinventing themselves. In his view, Featherbone is merely evolving today as it’s done so often before in its long history. Ever the optimist, Gus also crows that the United States and its manufacturing base may struggle against foreign competition, but “no one in the world will ever beat us in coming up with great ideas.”

We should take Gus’ same rose-tinted approach here in Gainesville-Hall County. I think we too often focus on the fears and problems facing us each day at the ends of our noses ­ worries about fast growth coming our way from Atlanta, traffic, taxes, overburdened schools, bickering governments, and so on.

But maybe, just maybe, we’re like Featherbone, faced with an incredible opportunity to renew our own destiny. As we prepare to embark on the HALLmark Vision ­ the Greater Hall Chamber’s drive to conduct a community-wide planning effort ­we can find inspiration in so many successful dreamers who live and work here like Gus Whalen. They understand what it means to look beyond the dark problems of where we are and look instead to the bright future of where we can go.

Can there even be a doubt that our community-visioning initiative will succeed?

No way. Not when we have tireless visionaries among us like Connie Hagler, who failed to give up when challenged with the daunting task of creating the Lake Lanier Olympic Center the state of Georgia’s only surviving venue and legacy from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Not when we have local heroes like Randy Owens, who faced an isolated life strapped to a wheelchair but now serves on the board of directors for Challenged Child, the hugely successful organization for special-needs kids that he inspired with the support of his family and friends.

Not when we have Eddie Staub, the founder and executive director for another non-profit called Eagle Ranch, the “Miracle on Chestnut Mountain” for children and families in crisis. Eddie’s tale of faith and perseverance, meeting a bank’s seemingly impossible deadline to secure his initial funding, has become the stuff of legends among his peers in children’s homes across the country.

Not when we have civic leadership like Dan and Chandelle Summer, who put up their own money to get the ball rolling on what has become one of Georgia’s most successful downtown redevelopment projects ­ Gainesville¹s Main Street program.

And these examples are just a few of the many more stories that could fill a book twice the size of Gordon Sawyer’s history book on Northeast Georgia. Who could have imagined the model partnership between Brenau University and Gainesville College that would lead to the nationally recognized Gainesville Theater Alliance? Or the reborn Quinlan Arts Center. Or the brand new Northeast Georgia History Center and its neighboring Burd Center for the Performing Arts. . . . There has never been a shortage of dreams and grand visions in our community.

So thank you, Gus Whalen. Thank you, Connie, Randy, Eddie, Dan and Chandelle. Thank you, Rob Fowler, our outgoing Chamber chairman who pushed for community visioning. Thanks to all who have dared to think big for Gainesville-Hall County.

I can hardly wait to see what you ­ what we all ­ dream up next.