Leaders in Raleigh, North Carolina told the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama that regional collaboration is the foundation of basically everything they do and a key factor in the success and growth they are enjoying.

The Chamber is here in the City of Oaks, a nickname Raleigh shares with Tuscaloosa, on its fifth Benchmarking Trip, where dozens of dignitaries from our area travel together to relatively comparable communities that are thriving to try and learn their secrets.

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As always, the Trip has been a whirlwind of panels and talks and Q&A sessions hosted in some of the area's most interesting and attractive venues, including the North Carolina Museum of Natural History, the 28th floor of City Club Raleigh and the stunningly beautiful American Tobacco Campus in Durham.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Topics of discussion Monday included economic development for white-collar recruitment, talent retention, how to thoughtfully prioritize arts and culture, effective public transportation infrastructure, and, at the center of all of it, the "Region First" mentality that has allowed the Raleigh area to thrive.

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(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Raleigh Chamber CEO Adrienne Cole said several of the area's top leaders across multiple sectors get together in several different recurring meetings to just talk over their needs, concerns, recent wins and more.

"We have some regular meetings that have been happening for decades that I think are critically important to the collaboration we enjoy in the community," Cole said. "They are often organized by the Chamber but it is a collection of the willing - it wouldn't work if all of these other leaders weren't willing to show up, participate and engage."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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There's a monthly leadership roundtable where elected officials and educators, businesspeople, transportation experts and more keep each other informed.

At a monthly regional roundtable, multiple regional Chambers of Commerce and economic development authorities from Raleigh, Durham, Wake County and more all collaborate to recruit industry to the area.

The region's art organizations all communicate and collaborate, major infrastructure improvement is overseen by a Regional Transportation Alliance, and on and on.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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"Those conversations that we're having in all of these meetings, they're not fun conversations. We're not going into these rooms and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done," said Kyle Touchstone, who is director of a partnership between the Raleigh Chamber, Wake County Economic Development and the City of Raleigh. "It's us looking at critical issues that we're facing and thinking 5 - 10 years down the road and figuring out how to overcome the roadblocks we're envisioning today."

Cole, Touchstone and Raleigh Chamber Senior Vice President Michael Haley said neither consumers nor job creators really care where one municipality ends and another begins - that even when a company says it's coming to Raleigh but it really means Durham, it's still a victory.

"People ask if we compete with Durham, and I say if we're competing with Durham, we've all already lost whatever game we think we're playing," Haley said. "We're too small individually to compete with Boston, San Francisco and places like that. We have to work collaboratively and show it."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Regional neighbors should support and advocate for each other if they want to land big fish like the multi-billion-dollar Apple campus coming to the Research Triangle Park.

"Instead of economic development being a zero-sum game where I win and you don't, it really becomes a regional win," Haley said. "We can have VinFast, an electric vehicle manufacturer bringing 7,500 jobs and a $4 billion investment to Chatham County - that's a win for our region! We were very supportive of that, the number one cheerleaders because we knew the impact it would have on our community."

A rising tide lifts all ships, he said.

"We didn't just say, 'hey good luck!' We actually spent some political capital of our own to help land that project because we then know we can have a large manufacturing facility in a more rural part of our region that's supported by innovation, research and development occurring at our universities and our urban core areas," Haley continued. "Those things naturally and organically breed partnerships and collaborations that are supplemented and grown and supported through our really focused efforts to meet and talk about it."

The region also benefits from extensive planning across all sectors - a slide Tuesday showed 10 different connected strategic plans that affect arts and culture around Raleigh.

The feeling among the Alabama group was that more should be done back home to see the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport collaborate with each other, the Tuscaloosa County government and smaller municipalities like Brookwood for the mutual benefit of all.

Haley said there's no secret to it but to get started.

"It's like sports," Haley said. "If you don't practice, you're not going to be good at it, so we practice collaboration every day."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The West Alabama Chamber group returns home after a few final sessions in Raleigh Tuesday morning. For final thoughts and takeaways from new President and CEO Kyle South, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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