NLC Elected a New President Today. Here’s What He Had to Say.

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Today at City Summit 2017, new NLC President Mark Stodola delivered an introductory address on his priorities and what he hopes to accomplish for America’s cities. That speech is reprinted here with minor edits.

We have come to Charlotte from across America, all fifty states, for one reason: to make our cities stronger.

We’re here to find better ways to serve our communities. To advocate more effectively for local priorities. To become the best leaders we can be for the people – our friends, our neighbors – in our communities.

But since we are going to be working together a lot over the next year, I thought ya’ll might want to know a little about me. I was conceived in Minnesota, raised in Iowa, and when I was old enough to make decisions moved to Arkansas.

I’ve served as an elected prosecutor…and as a public defender. I’ve been a city attorney and been a senior partner in a law firm. And now I am lucky and grateful to be mayor of the next Great American City in the South, a position I have held since 2007.

My story of public service actually began in the 10th grade. I ran for homeroom representative. Modestly, I didn’t think I should vote for myself. Guess what? I lost by one vote!

Never made that mistake again. I went on to be Class President my sophomore, junior, and senior years in high school, played on the tennis team, and performed in several of the school’s musicals. I was president of the city’s youth council when, at the age of 17, I was chosen by the city to be a foreign exchange student and lived with a family in Turkey.

I went on to college where I was in the University Choir at Iowa and helped start a rugby team when I was in law school at the University of Arkansas (I actually played my last game in 2010, 7 years ago.)

My introduction to politics began in law school where I was the scheduler for my professor who was running for Congress. He lost – but later became President. I once ran for Congress as well. I lost…but found a better job as mayor of my city where I can really help people.

My mother was a music teacher and every night I went to bed listening to the soundtrack of Oklahoma so it is no wonder that I have a love for the theater. I have performed at the Kennedy Center and at resorts in upstate New York. I’ve been everything from Charlie Brown and Little Abner to Nicky Arnstein and Billy Bigelow in the famous Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. Most recently I appeared at our repertory theater in a cameo appearance this year as the Pope in Sister Act.

However, I think one of the most important things you should know about me is that I am tenacious and determined. I suspect I share that trait with most of you. Now my mother…and Jo Ellen…and the kids…and well maybe my staff might say it’s a touch of stubbornness. But call it what you want, it’s a necessary trait for leadership. However, we must exercise informed tenacity.

The “informed” is where NLC comes in!

As someone who likes to solve problems, turning to the knowledge-based expertise provided by the National League of Cities is where I receive the latest and best information to solve city problems. Wherever I am, I like to see that my work is helping somebody make their life better.

Every day as city leaders, we wake up and work on solving problems for our people. And I don’t just mean solving everyday issues, but the five-, ten-, and twenty-year issues too.

I believe that successful leadership is based on a passion for transformation and the willingness to see it through. We know that there is no such thing as standing still – we are either getting ahead, falling behind, or trying to catch up.

As city leaders, our residents depend on us. Even when it’s not glamorous, we’re sworn to making people’s lives better.

In Little Rock, we’ve done a lot to improve our city and the lives of our citizens. One area we’ve really made a priority is investing in housing in some of our historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. From $8.6 million of stimulus money focused in the Central High neighborhood, to 155 homeowners who were helped by our CDBG money.

Our recently-launched AmeriCorps Neighborhood Safety Corps is renovating homes; increasing preventative safety measures; and improving energy efficiency in targeted neighborhoods.

We’ve breathed new life into our Main Street which had been deserted for 30 years. Now, entrepreneurs, artists, dancers, and tech gurus are living, eating, drinking coffee, and having their ideas and creativity collide, fostering an environment that my sons’ generation thrives on.

Dubbed as our Creative Corridor, over the last 36 months, $150 million in private sector investment has gone into Main Street (thanks in large part to historic tax credits, by the way). We have built a technology park in the heart of Little Rock, with 38,000 square feet of co-working space for technology-focused companies and entrepreneurs, with plans to build out to 600,000 square feet.

One of the biggest challenges and opportunities we are facing now — and I think this is something you’re all familiar with —  is preparing our workforce for a changing economy – a 21st Century economy.

We are only 17 years into this new world. 10 years ago we all carried flip phones or Blackberries – the iPhone was just arriving on the scene. We now have multiple ways to communicate instantaneously – across different time zones to states and foreign countries. We have e-mail, text, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facetime, Skype, We Chat, and the list goes on.

Imagine yourself, and your city, ten years from now: and think of what additional transformations will have occurred. Imagine the jobs of 2027.

In our new economy, we need better training for every kind of job — not only high tech jobs, but also including skills-based jobs that don’t necessarily take a degree in computer science.

As we move into 2018, I would like to focus us on The Future of Work and what that means in all its varied contexts.

Sharing economy expert and Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase puts it well saying, “my father had one job in his lifetime, I will have six jobs in my lifetime, and my children will have six jobs at the same time.”

We need to help more people start careers as small manufacturers or “makers”, or entrepreneurs in charge of their own economic destiny. We need computer-aided textile workers, firefighters; police officers; skilled construction workers; and welders.

Our changing economy is one of the biggest challenges we face today. It’s changing so fast that many folks can’t keep up — and it’s making it hard for businesses to find workers for the jobs that are available.

It’s why we’re all asking the same question: How do I make sure my residents…and my city’s economic environment are prepared?

This year, my focus as NLC president will be on what city leaders can do to prepare our residents for our rapidly shifting economy. How can we help them get the jobs of tomorrow?

Remember how President Clinton’s campaign said, “It’s the economy, stupid!”  Well for us—as city leaders today— “It’s the jobs, stupid!”

Many of you have already been focusing on this. Some of you have built innovation districts, or expanded local transit, like right here in Charlotte. Maybe you’ve updated your land use policies, or helped bring faster broadband to your business districts.

As city leaders we are developing innovative policies that are making a big difference. We have to generate new ideas to advance the skills and competitiveness of our workforces.

The next step is to take these examples and lift them up; replicate them; and share them with each other.

The National League of Cities is the place to share and learn these strategies and techniques. That’s why we all come here—to be inspired, and take home ideas that can transform our communities.

As we heard earlier this week, President Zone’s leadership on Economic Mobility & Opportunity is helping city leaders build a more equitable future where prosperity is shared.

The NLC is researching subjects like the Future of Equity, the Sharing Economy and how cities are helping build tech incubators and growing small manufacturers and entrepreneurs.

We’re studying how artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles are already transforming cities both large and small, and their economies.

The NLC is also bringing together partnerships in education and the private sector, to support new workforce initiatives that city leaders can implement in their own communities.

So, what can we do, as America’s city leaders?

We have an amazing opportunity to lead. We see the challenges, break them down, and find solutions that work in our communities. When we face truly big challenges, we come together at places like this City Summit, breaking down the problem, and finding solutions.

Education is the foundation of it all. We’ve got to work with our federal, state and local partners to expand access to education…particularly early childhood education, and vocational training at the high school and post-secondary levels.

When we confront challenges like this one, we can see the power of city leaders working together.

I’m proud to lead the best organization in America for cities to come together, and become stronger in our unity.

It’s why we put it right there in NLC’s logo: Cities. Strong. Together.

NLC is the platform for the future of cities.

And it’s a national voice for times like now when Washington needs to hear what’s happening in cities, and what our priorities are.

That’s what makes me so excited to serve this year as your president.

Our work as city leaders is to lift people up and prepare them for what’s next. To solve problems with innovative solutions that make a real difference in peoples’ lives.

And with the help of Mayor Freeman-Wilson, and Joe Buscaino, we will rise to the challenge of preparing our workforce for tomorrow’s jobs.

We will rise to the challenge of protecting programs that help cities succeed.

We will rise to the challenge of being globally competitive.

We will rise to the challenge by investing in infrastructure and adopting smart city technologies that bring jobs to our communities.

We’ll rise to these challenges, because cities are strong together.

That’s why I need you to get involved with NLC!

I need you to speak up and join our advocacy committees, so your ideas and voices will be heard.

I need you to take advantage of all the opportunities the NLC provides — like our constituency groups, our Race Equity And Leadership program, and NLC University.

And when we head to Washington in March for the Congressional City Conference. I need you to tell Congress and the Administration first-hand what they need to do to help cities. I need you there with us.

When we met at City Summit last year, we’d just been through one of the most divisive, turbulent elections this country has ever seen … and nobody knew what was coming next.

But as I stand before you today, and I can tell you we’ve accomplished some amazing things for cities!

And looking out at this room today, I know you’re only just getting started.

I know each of you cares so much about lifting up your community and making it better. I know you’ve got that passion for transformation and the willingness to see it through.

That’s what makes us leaders. We are not going to wait on the future to happen to our cities. We are going to make the future happen for our cities.

We are not going to wait for someone else to make things better. As city leaders, we are going to make things better.

We’re going to take the challenge and meet it head-on!

We are Cities. Strong. Together!

Thank you. It’s going to be a great year.

Thank you.

colr_mayor_mark_stodolaAbout the author: Mark Stodola is the Mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas and the President of National League of Cities.