Clay McInnis, owner of Commerce Consulting, is also executive director of the Montgomery chapter of Angel Investor Management Group and the president of the Downtown Business Association. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.
Montgomery Business Journal: I know you wear multiple hats. Please talk about your role as president of the Downtown Business Association, and what does the organization do? • McInnis: I serve as volunteer president of the Downtown Business Association and what we have become is a group of businesses that advocate for quality of life downtown. We’re positioned to communicate, facilitate, collaborate and aggregate the efforts of downtown, whether that’s through businesses; whether that is through the Chamber (Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce); whether that is through the city – it could be various different channels – but what we try to do is bolster the quality of life.
What are some of the things that the association has accomplished? • This year we have introduced a fund called the Gumption Fund, which consists of 20 trustees (people) to commit $100 a month for a year. We grant $2,000 a month for good ideas to improve the City of Montgomery with a focus on downtown. It’s been tremendously successful.
How does someone seek a grant? • Our application process is pretty simple. We accept applications and we average around 10 to 12 applications. We email them for a democratic vote of the trustees and then we grant the money and make sure that those projects get done.
What projects have been funded? • In January, we did the mural on AL.com. In February, we (had) the Peace Within Trail app and website. In March, we had Lemonade Day, which was a day to teach at-risk youth entrepreneurial skills. April was Gumption Park improvements – capital improvements in partnership with the city at the incubator spaces. May was the Foomatic space up on Cottage Hill. They worked on a science bus. It’s basically a rolling science lab for public schools and also Weird Montgomery newsletter. In June, (a grant was leveraged from $2,000 to $4,000) for more bike racks downtown. In July, the Gumptioneers summer internships program we hosted here at Stamp. It was a four-week program, where we brought in leaders for graphic designer interns at Stamp. They started six different programs.
What’s the impact of the Gumption Fund? • This Gumption Fund – this Gumption brand – has had a ripple effect on quality of place throughout the city. In August, the American Advertising Federation had a printer matters downtown workshop. The Gumption Fund is $24,000 a year, but the impact that it has is well beyond (the money). It’s the seed that’s being planted and you’re empowering those that may say to themselves, “Maybe I can’t. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I don’t have the right tools.” Once they execute they are part of this community. They are part of this Gumption community. That’s really what we’re going for.
How long have you been president of the Downtown Business Association? • I’ve been president a little over a year and a half. We have grown the organization from about 12 members (to) a little over 130 members. It’s only $99 to join. It’s really just a conduit and a platform. We have meetings every other month – big member meetings. It’s basically like a town hall, but what we did with this Gumption Fund is, we created a system; we created a program that can live on hopefully and send out ripple effects. We can point to a lot of these programs that we empower to help bolster downtown and the quality of place without us really getting too involved on a bigger level.
Talk about your Commerce Consulting company. • I’m working with the Chamber this year on quality of place on Goal III (of the Imagine a Greater Montgomery II strategy, which is “Transform Montgomery’s Image and Quality of Place.”) That’s been a blessing and a great opportunity and we’ve gotten a lot of deliverables to the table. The programs that we’re doing touch on Goal I (“Champion Education and Develop Competitive Regional Talent”); Goal II (“Strengthen and Diversify the Regional Economy”); Goal III; and a little of Goal IV (“Embrace Diversity and Build Leadership Capacity”) in the Imagine a Greater Montgomery II strategy.
What are some of your accomplishments in this arena? • It’s really, really about bolstering the quality of place and that incorporates downtown, but also incorporates a few other things. It incorporates really understanding our IT (information technology) assets; our cyber assets; our soft assets that we can leverage going forward as far as economic development. If you look at Montgomery over the last 150 years, the economy has shifted from the river to the railroad to the interstate to the device. That’s not an uncommon thing for most American cities. I’m a millennial and half the workforce in five years will be millennials. Our priorities and the way we work and how we work and why we work in the first place (are) completely different than what we see today. Part of this year has been identifying strategies to incorporate that as well as coming up with a program like connectmgm.
What is connectmgm? • It’s my idea of an interactive website to point people who just moved into town, or younger people, to groups and organizations. It’s kind of like the Yelp of soft assets in the community. My goal is that you click on connectmgm and then you click on each category based on your interests. This is just simply a resource connector.
This is a quality-of-life builder because you’re taking resources and assets and aligning those with people wanting to do things. We’re trying really hard to get a downtown Wi-Fi network that connects people.
Isn’t that available right now? • No, we don’t (have one); not one that works. What we’re looking for is a robust, downtown Wi-Fi network because millennials and tourists … want connectivity, but there’s a deeper level of connectivity that happens downtown. We’re looking for digital connectivity, but we’re also looking for community connectivity.
Things to go to and things to see? • Exactly. That strikes to the core of the millennials and innovation strategy going forward. When you look at Montgomery, we’re actually well positioned for the future because we have a low cost of living. We are 10.4 percent below the national average cost of living and we’re adding assets – especially downtown. We’re adding community assets. We’re adding IT assets. We’re levering economic assets that we have to position ourselves, plus I don’t see us running out of water in the foreseeable future and other parts of the country are unfortunately. We’re cheap; we’re strategically placed; half the working force in five years will be millennials. What does that look like for us being competitive not only regionally, but nationally in recruiting and retaining young talent?
I see that you’re executive director of the AIM (Angel Investor Management) Group in Montgomery. Please talk about that. • Even though I wear several different hats, they all connect – there’s a common denominator. Statewide we have 225 accredited investors – high-net individuals. They get together once a month and see a high-tech startup that’s based somewhere in the Southeast or the rest of the country and we (decide whether to) invest in that company. We have invested in over 27 companies so far and I’m basically a bird dog for startup companies not only in Alabama, but particularly Montgomery. There have been five or six trying to go through the program.
Did any of the Montgomery-based firms receive funding? • They haven’t yet. We have a very high standard for a return on investment for the investors. These Montgomery companies are really great companies, but we get 40 applications throughout the Southeast so it’s a very, very competitive process. The value of the network is the due diligence. The risk is dissipated through 225 investors and your threshold to invest is a lot lower. It’s risky, but our members really like it.
How many members are in the Montgomery chapter? • It has grown exponentially. We have a little over 30. My goal is 40 to 45 for the Montgomery chapter, which I think is attainable.
As executive director, do you recruit members? • Yes. I identify potential members and meet with them. I organize the meetings locally and help administratively on due diligence efforts.
You earlier said you’re a millennial. How old are you? • I just turned 29. The millennials, I believe, are born from 1981 to 2000. I am the last generation that did not know what is was like to be on social media when I was growing up. Also, I am the last age group within the millennials not to have my brain already programmed in some kind of operating system environment like a phone or an iPad or a laptop. Within the generation there are huge canyons of differences and that’s not uncommon with a lot of generations. But the speed in which innovation is happening is happening at a very rapid pace. Where there are problems there are opportunities, and what does that look like for Montgomery and what does that look like for our economy? When we talk about the future, a lot of my peers growing up have moved on to different cities.
Well, there is a lot of opportunity in Montgomery. There are a ton of opportunities in Montgomery. It’s about raising awareness of those opportunities and empowering those to seek it out and to seize those opportunities because retaining and recruitment of young talent and startup companies and innovation (are) going to be a huge economic strategy going forward. I think we are being intentional about taking steps to do that.
What makes Montgomery such a great place to live, work and play for young professionals? • First of all our downtown is growing and we’re starting to see the density of not only activities, but also communities within the built environment. Two, the 10.4 percent-below-the-national-average cost of living is a benefit – that’s an asset that a lot of people don’t talk about. I think a lot of people say that it’s the biggest small town that they have ever seen, and where there are opportunities there are a lot of people rooting and cheering on people that are champions for their specific cause; for their specific project. We are a community that gets behind people that want to champion their passions in something. As we grow our built environment downtown – as we grow our soft assets and our communities – as we are able to identify those communities and connect people to people and people to organizations – you’re going to start seeing a flywheel effect happen.
What do you mean by “built environment?” • Basically, the hard assets. Lofts. We had zero residential units prior to 2004. We’ll have over 525 (downtown) by the first quarter of 2016.
The number of restaurants since 2004 probably doubled or tripled. • Probably quadrupled. There were only two restaurants with lights on after 5 o’clock in 2004 in the Entertainment District – Lek’s and the Brew Pub. When you add the residential component on top of that, you really have a community.
Everything I’ve read is that downtown is a critical draw for millennials. Why is downtown so important for millennials? • Downtown is so important because of the priorities of millennials. Connectivity. The common denominator of the millennials is connectivity. You see it every day on social media. You see it on Snapchat. You see it on Twitter. You see it on Instagram. There is a digital connectivity and there is a physical connectivity. As we’ve seen the economy shift from the river to the railroad to the interstate to the device, there are specific themes that go along with that.
What are those themes? • You’ve got the goods – farm, factory and cubicle device, but the interstate represented sprawl and the interstate represented separation from what was a concentrated community downtown. The millennials somewhat grew up in that. The opposite of that is connectivity. The opposite of that is intentional communities. The opposite of that is placing quality of life above material trappings. We (millennials) came up in a complete economic meltdown. We grew up in the suburbs and there are a lot of psychological components with that. We want connectivity. We absolutely want connectivity.
And downtown can give you that connectivity. • That’s right. With the devices and the built environment, then you have connectivity in both themes and that’s what we strive for.
That’s the key to recruiting and retaining young professionals. • Yes, 100 percent. That’s our future. I want to go out on a limb and say our future in Montgomery is how well we connect people with people and how we connect people to the future economy. The economy is going to look different, so how we position ourselves is really important. We’re working on some really big changes in the IT infrastructure. That’s a big deal. There is something very attractive with connecting mid-market cities. When you have a robust infrastructure and you’re able to connect Chattanooga to Nashville to Huntsville to Birmingham to Montgomery to Mobile to Auburn to Atlanta to Charlotte – that is a big deal. When you add manufacturing on top of that and you add natural resources on top of that and you add a low cost of living on top of that, I see the Southeast – specifically Montgomery because we’re right in the middle of that – (prospering).