A Discussion With Odis Jones On How COVID-19 Is Impacting our Cities
Odis Jones is the CEO of Cobblestone Development. Odis has over 30 years of experience working in city management and project development for municipalities. Now through his leadership of Cobblestone Development, he consults with city and state leaders, as well as private sector leaders, and helps to create growth opportunities within their communities.
Odis grew up in the ghettos of Detroit, but he learned to persevere and to see adversity as an opportunity to better himself. With a football scholarship at Central Michigan University, he was able to obtain a degree in Sociology and then went on to complete a Master’s in Public Administration from Western Michigan University.
All of the positions he has taken on in city management have been opportunities to grow and develop communities through special projects to boost economic growth, including making Obetz, Ohio a logistics hub of the Midwest, the redevelopment of Gowdy Field in Columbus, Ohio into a business park, rebuilding the skyline in Paterson City, New Jersey, and redevelopment of the waterfront in Cincinnati. It is notable that Odis chose to return to Detroit in 2013 and serve as the CEO of the Public Lighting Authority to rebuild the city streetlights and electrical grid. He has also served as the City Manager and CEO of Hutto, Texas where he resides with his wife and five children.
How has your industry been impacted by COVID-19 and social distancing now being required to flatten the spread of the virus?
I think it has caused all of us to be more efficient with our time and more importantly to be more ingenious about how we provide service to our clients.
My company does a lot of consulting for municipalities. During this time, while municipalities are figuring out what is their right approach and strategy will be dealing with COVID-19 from a public safety standpoint and a health standpoint, my company, myself, and others in the industry have been focused on how to recover. What I’m currently doing is advising cities on developing recovery plans and strategies for jumpstarting businesses and getting them up and running again and dealing with the financial crisis that has been caused by having to shut the doors.
From that standpoint, a lot of advisory services have been the use of technologies, while at the same time being able to advise them on an appropriate strategy for advancing business and economic growth within their communities as it relates to helping businesses get started after the crisis to rebuild, recover, and reimagine. That is what I’ve been doing.
I bring to the table over 30 years of experience dealing with economic development issues and helping cities grow and manage through a crisis. This is what I do. This is what my industry does. For us, economic development professionals, it’s an opportunity for us to help our clients thrive in this environment. Here at Cobblestone, we’re helping cities reimagine how they recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
How are you able to help your customers work through all of the city closures given your industry relies on public space planning?
I come to the table with experience, not only in managing economic development issues, but managing cities with their planning, so it has brought out those ingenious skills in me so that I can appropriately advise them. But I am working closely with my clients, their staff and departments, and devising plans to implement, whether it be small business loans programs, redevelopment projects with the city to drive economic growth and development, developing one-stop shops so that they can ease the burden on investors as they begin to invest within communities, whether it be tax-incentive programs, again, to ease that burden, to create more liquidity in a market to allow for investors to get more comfortable. All these things culminating together, I think, are going to have a dramatic impact on a city’s ability to recover after this crisis. Those are the toolsets that I’m using to address those issues.
Each city is different and unique. It brings its own set of challenges and has its own forward-leaning posture that it needs to take uniquely in order to recover. Whether it be from the neighborhood retail stores, the mom and pop shops, or the larger big box stores and mega center retail centers, all of those different environments will need a certain tactic in order for cities to be successful, whether it’s just a managing appropriately the industrial spaces within a city, all of those things that drive commerce, drive investment, drive a point basis within cities.
What we do at Cobblestone is work with those cities to classify those different assets within the city and devise strategies and plans that will address each of them. We will have a plan for neighborhood retail. We will have a plan for small businesses. We will have plan for industrial businesses and development. We will plan for bringing on and expanding the medical operations within the community. Each one of them has a separate vertical market, if you will, so it is developing a vertical market plan to help those cities and America rebound as we come out of this crisis.
This time has been good for my business. We have been picking up more clients. As the curve is being flattened for health issues, communities are starting to think about how they can come back online, how to get businesses back up, how to get the investment back to happening, how to get people back to work. What we specialize in is helping cities to navigate that playing field. From that standpoint, our business has seen an uptick from communities calling and asking: Can you help us develop a small business loan program. Can you help us develop a redevelopment strategy? Can you help us with developing business development and investment strategy so that we can get people back to work? That has been taking place for us.
What does your typical day look like now versus prior to social isolation?
Typically, I am on the road a lot, seeing clients and visiting offices and city halls throughout America. I’m usually traveling a lot and usually playing hopscotch on planes.
Here recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Zoom and Go-to-Meeting, those other technology bases to have meetings. It’s allowed us to be more efficient actually in the office environment, but at the same time you miss out on that one-on-one personal touch. America is strong, and we’re going to stand up and we’ll get through this, but for right now that’s been the experience we’ve had.
Technology today, whether it’s smartphones or using Go-to-Meeting, we’re able to still be a part of the discussion in a manner and place that we need to be, but Americans are social creatures. There is an element of social interaction that we don’t get to interface with each other on, but you still can drive efficiency and capture the moments that need to be captured to be able to do business via technology, and we have been taking advantage of that.
How do you and your team stay in constant communication during this time?
We are staying in contact through email, Twitter, all the different social media platforms, smartphones and all those things that we’ve not necessarily used as much, but now we are in full swing of using those things that I’ve mentioned, like Go-to-Meeting. It’s actually helping us and everyone else be better planners.
How is your business continuing to market your products during COVID-19?
We’ve experienced an uptick of cities calling and saying, “Hey, come help us.” But at the same time, we have a fairly aggressive digital marketing platform and a lot of our business comes to us through word of mouth because of the experiences that our clients have had with us on other projects that have been successful. From that standpoint, it’s been good.
What are some things outside of work that you are doing now to stay busy?
I’m educating my kids. I think as a country we’ve all learned to appreciate the teaching profession a lot better. It helps you to realize they really deserve to get paid more than they are because we’re all at home teaching our children. All of the schools in Texas are still closed.
The good thing is this allows us to get to those old-fashioned American values. I think that’s going to be one of the positive things that come out of the COVID-19 time. We, as Americans, really got back in touch with those family values and an appreciation for education, all those things that made the post World War II – I call it the Greatest Generation. All of us have grandfathers and grandmothers and moms and pops that taught us the importance of education, the importance of family, the importance of love and service, all those things have been reignited and I think reinvigorated the American spirit.
We’re excited about what the future holds. We’re excited about the economy getting back and running, but at the same time, we’re also respectful and appreciative of the geniuses of our scientific community. We want to be led by them at this time.
How difficult has managing a work-life balance been in this circumstance?
It’s been very fruitful. While we spend time with family, with the technology and smartphones, all the things that we have available to us, we’re still able to keep in touch and in tune with what our clients’ needs are, and that’s important.
What keeps you motivated during this time of quarantine?
I just really believe that every time in America we’ve had a crisis, no matter what it’s been, going back in history, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, – historical buff that I am – all those times we’ve had crises, America has come out stronger. I can just feel and see, as I’m talking with my clients, which is the city leadership throughout the country, I’m really seeing the invigoration of the American spirit.
Whether it’s the police on the street, our medical professionals, or the small businesses who are now figuring out how to service food from the curb so they can provide their service to the community, the normal folks that need to be at home and raise their kids and spend time with their families while they work third shift, I think all of that taps into the American genius, the American culture, and who we are as a people. I’m just excited about our future. We are going to come out of this thing. It’s going to be tough. It’s still a little tough sledding right now for us, but I think when we do come out, we’re going to birth a new generation of entrepreneurs again. There is a lot of creativity that’s coming out of this. I think at the same time, it’s going to birth a new generation of community spirit where we learn to appreciate more like I said, teachers and those people who are on the front lines. I’m excited about that. I look at the situation and go, you know, it’s tough today, but it’s going to be well worth it tomorrow.
What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome from working remotely?
As I said before, it just puts you more in touch with today’s technology. As a guy who’s probably not the most technology savvy person in the world, it’s allowed me to get in touch with that techy side of myself. I learn all of the software and applications and how it has an impact on being efficient and develop an appreciation for the geniuses that created that. That’s been a good thing.
What advice would you give to our readers about how you have had to change your business practice to meet social distancing guidelines?
My advice is to be hopeful, be ingenious. Allow yourself to be creative in meeting the needs of your customer base. If you focus on providing good service with a creative perspective, you’ll be fine. Think about how you can best serve your clients during this time and more importantly you can best serve your community and the people who work within the environments of your clients because it is taking all of us to put us more in tune with the personal appreciation of people.
What is one piece of advice that is getting you through these current times?
This country has over 800,000 victims who have fallen ill from this virus. At the same time, bless those families that have had to deal with deaths. I think it’s now up to 50,000 who have died. At this time, you either know somebody who’s gotten ill or who has passed away or knows somebody, who knows somebody who has. That has a traumatic impact on the American spirit and its rebirths a certain fighting edge that I think is going to make all of this good in the long term but also helps us to appreciate the challenge that we have ahead. It will be tough, but at the same time, we’ll come out of it strong. Think about the positive things that are going to come out of this.
When this pandemic is behind us are there any new processes or ways of communicating with customers you would keep in place?
I think one thing that we’re doing, everything from the advancement in technology, we are going to keep applying that. The other thing too is I think it helps us to appreciate the efficiency of working from home. I’m not sure I need to have a big office space anymore. There are many studies out there that say people who work from home are actually more efficient because you get to balance work and life a lot better.
From that standpoint, some of those things we’ll keep in place. Some of those things, we won’t. We still have a consulting side. We also have a real estate side of our business where we buy and develop the land. We advise investors on how to be successful in that.
I think from a general operating sense, I think some of us will work at home more often because we have an appreciation for it now. I think it’s just going to be natural. I think our behaviors as entrepreneurs, as investors, and as a people, we’re to have a change in our behavior because this has been a life-changing force. I think it will be positive. I think it will be a force that helps us to appreciate some of the things that we have in this country: Hard work, dedication, ingenuity, respect and love for people and our neighbors. I think those things have hit home to us.
In the older generations, I call it the Greatest Generation, they went off to war and saved this country from tyranny. We haven’t had to make this kind of sacrifice as we’re making now. Those other generations have made huge sacrifices to defend the values of this country. Some of them lost their lives in war, in France and all over the world, to defend who we are as a nation. I think this is just that time for us to make sacrifices that will not affect the curve, but history, in a positive way. It will also affect how we care about each other, how we do business and drive our economy, and our future together.
You can find out more about Odis at OdisJones.com.
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