The American Congressional Exchange headed for the heart of the South last week for the very first back-to-back ACE trips. Each was a bustling district that showcased the history, challenges, and enormous promise of a region critical to America’s future.
This was a two-day whirlwind between Atlanta, GA, and Greenville-Spartanburg, SC, that truly showcased the South’s dynamism, beginning at the busiest (and, as they say, most efficient) airport in the world, and ended at an inland port packed with trucks and trains moving goods to and from the booming Upstate South Carolina region.
Atlanta-Hartsfield International Airport is not just the hub of travel in the South, but also a key connection point for the nation’s economy as well as travelers from around the world. Efficiency is critical, and in particular airport officials were keen to showcase a new perimeter taxiway that bypasses the need for planes to cross busy runways made possible, in part, by federal funding. Officials from Delta Air Lines also joined the tour, as Atlanta is their major hub and headquarters. Delta showcased its growing fleet of electric ground support equipment, moving the airline away from fossil fuels for key operations like transporting and loading baggage.
The theme shifted to more local commerce and a focus on minority entrepreneurship with a working lunch with Atlanta Black small business owners and representatives from Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs and The Entrepreneurship Center of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta. Concerns were raised concerning workforce shortages – a common theme on most ACE trips – the challenging business environment linked to high interest rates, the opportunity for FinTech to help small businesses, and potential growth in cybersecurity careers.
The subsequent tour of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, as well as Dr. King’s birth home, were highlights of the trip and brought into profound focus Atlanta’s seminal role in the Civil Rights movement. Representative Williams of course had visited before, but for Rep. Timmons this was a firsthand opportunity to learn more about Dr. King’s legacy and the continuing struggle for equality. In addition to preserving this important history, the center actively educates and trains individuals in how to lead their communities in the spirit of his approach, such as through its Nonviolence 365 training.
From there, the two members were afforded a glimpse into the cutting-edge technologies that the Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Institute is developing to accelerate the path to carbon-neutral energy solutions. As a capstone to the day, before Reps. Timmons and Williams departed for South Carolina, they shared dinner with representatives from Atlanta-area Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The conversation covered a wide range of issues, including the unique experience students enjoy at HBCUs, how education can close the racial wealth gap, and the importance of companies partnering with HBCUs to get students into job pipelines.
The following morning started early in downtown Greenville, SC, which has undergone extensive rejuvenation in recent years. The Greenville-Spartanburg area, a.k.a. “upstate,” has experienced burgeoning economic success since BMW established its first North American assembly plant there in 1992 and is now one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Unsurprisingly, it has become a hub of the “mobility industry” as the two members witnessed firsthand at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research and the groundbreaking for a massive new BMW facility that will produce batteries for electric vehicles.
The theme of manufacturing and employment continued at the next stops: a sprawling Lockheed Martin plant that builds and maintains F-16s almost completely by hand, and a GE facility that assembles gargantuan gas turbines used domestically and shipped across the globe.
Finally, the representatives toured Inland Port Greer, where cargo containers are stacked to the sky and trucks and rail move all manner of goods – including BMWs – to numerous locations in the eastern U.S. and most often to and from the Port of Charleston. Port Greer is an economic lifeline for the region, supporting nearly 117,000 jobs and $32.8 billion of economic impact annually.
Reps. Timmons and Williams were somewhat familiar with each other before this trip, as they had served on the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress together, and they are both members of the House Committee on Financial Services. But this exchange afforded them a much more personal and focused time to get to know one another and the issues that are important to them and their constituents in districts that share deep southern roots but experience different challenges and opportunities.
As Rep. Timmons noted at one of the stops, you have to come to trust the lawmaker across the aisle if you are going to take the political risk to work with them. That’s the spirit of the ACE program and the benefit that was gained by both members of Congress.
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