Local leaders gathered Tuesday as part of the Power Breakfast which included discussions about COVID-19 impacts and racial inequities. (Photo by Johanna Cano)
Communities and businesses continue to be impacted by two major events that largely defined 2020: COVID-19 and race relations.
But collaboration between businesses, the public and government can help provide solutions to tackle these challenges.
That was one key message from Tuesday’s Power Breakfast titled, “The New New Normal,” hosted by the Greater Wilmington Business Journal at the Wilmington Convention Center.
The event featured guest speakers delivering TED-style talks and a panel discussion on equity efforts in the region as a response to George Floyd- and racial inequity-related protests.
One takeaway from the TED-style talks on the impacts of COVID-19 is that communities should not go back to the way things were, but rather evolve along with the changes the pandemic brought.
Future of building and transforming downtown
“I don’t think our response to the pandemic can be to build it back just like it was,” said Charles Boney, architect and principal at LS3P.
From schools to health care to offices, the pandemic brought changes that will guide the future of building design and architecture, he said.
For K-12 schools, changes include virus security checkpoints, large communal spaces and HVAC filtration. Colleges and university buildings are experiencing hybrid learning environments that in the long-term will require fewer and smaller classrooms.
Health care buildings have been preventing virus spread by rearranging the way traffic flows through buildings and will be largely impacted by telehealth, calling for smaller lobbies.
“Among some professions, the home office will become the norm and not the exception,” Boney said. Getting people back in the office would require changes such as home-like furnishings, outdoor workspaces and amenities such as gyms.
(Watch Charles Boney's talk here.)
“Great downtowns don’t just happen, great downtowns take a lot of work,” said Holly Childs, president of Wilmington Downtown Inc.
Childs outlined seven elements that make up a great downtown: a critical mass of businesses, sustainable mix of uses, a “happening” nightlife, growing residential base, ample parking and public transit, gathering spaces and walkable pedestrian passages.
Those are factors that draw people downtown and that the community needs to work on to continue to attract tourists, businesses and development, she said.
“We have all of the boxes checked for a great downtown,” Childs said.
(Watch Holly Childs' talk here.)
Education excellence and shifting ways
“If we continue to try to do the things we used to do, and we know that the world is shifting, we get left behind,” said Charles Foust, superintendent of New Hanover County Schools.
The coronavirus did one thing well: It forced schools to use more technology, he said. The school district has been working on being innovative by looking at the needs of the city and making sure it is providing academic progress.
That includes connecting with the business world to ensure that schools are providing education that in turn creates a quality employee or business colleague so communication with businesses is important, he said.
“We have to talk to the business world, we have to have those conversations monthly, sometimes daily to make sure we are satisfying the need [for trained employees],” Foust said.
(Watch Charles Foust's talk here.)
Lisa Leath, founder of Leath HR Group, said employers and employees are figuring out what their new “normal” looks like.
“We all know we can’t go back to the old way,” said Leath. “But what is this new way? Everybody’s is going to be a little bit different, but what we all have in common as we transition into this new way is that the people continue to be the engines of our business.”
Leath highlighted a survey finding which shows about 52% of employees say they prefer to work remotely, 40% don’t plan on getting a COVID-19 vaccine and 73% want a greater shared purpose with the employer and deeper community connections.
For employers who are hesitant to let their employees work remotely, Leath recommends re-enforcing expectations and establishing check-ins.
(Watch Lisa Leath's talk here.)
Panel on race
Another important event last year was race relations and discussions as it pertains to police brutality and inequality. Local leaders, both in the public and private sectors, discussed in a panel how they have been reacting to this issue.
Huntley Garriott, president of Live Oak Bank, said the Wilmington-based business has been involved through philanthropic initiatives, starting a roundtable with major Wilmington employers on inequality a few years ago as well as focusing on recruiting a more diverse workforce.
“The events around George Floyd catalyzed us and a lot of corporate America in terms of how we thought about our obligation,” Garriott said.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said the city has been making sure that it provides an equal opportunity and service for everyone.
“The city took an initiative to look at this together, to look at ways that we can break down the systemic walls of racism,” Saffo said. “We want to make sure that we value each one of our citizens. We want to look at ways that we can deliver services in a more equitable way.”
In addition, the city is working to ensure that police receive implicit bias training and are held accountable for their actions, Saffo said.
Linda Thompson, whose role as chief diversity and equity officer was created last year by New Hanover County, said last year’s protests were a product of many years of oppression.
“The volcano had been simmering for hundreds of years and because the volcano had been simmering for hundreds of years, it was due to erupt,” Thompson said. “After you oppress people and discriminate people and people are being killed all across this country unjustly, people get tired of it.”
The county’s response has been to create the new diversity office that works to look at inequities, diversity and inclusion both internally and externally, she said. The county has made implicit bias training mandatory for all county employees.
The county has also focused on helping women- and minority-owned businesses with guiding them to become business partners, Thompson said.
Not only are these organizations individually establishing initiatives; they are working together to address racial inequalities.
“It's every day we're working with the private sector to figure out ways that we can partner together to deliver services and ways people will feel engaged in this community,” Saffo said.
Racial inequality is an issue that will take a lot of partners and discussions to be able to continue addressing it, the panel agreed.
“There is no one answer. It's more housing, more education, more jobs, more small businesses, it's more everything that we do with more partnerships,” Garriott said. “I think if there's one thing that we've heard today is that awareness and that intentionality about this will move us all forward.”