Forward Mobile's Story
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
An informal and "loose knit organization" of 40 or so community leaders, Forward Mobile exists in the spirit of such past civic demigods as Austill Pharr and Finlay McRae to resolve issues without fanfare before they become rancorous and divisive conflicts, Forward Mobilian Charlie Story recently told the Rotary Club of Mobile.
The stature, talents and experience of Forward Mobile's members give it credibility with elected officials from U.S. senators to House speakers, from state legislators to town councilmen, according to Story.
Forward Mobile's accomplishments in uniting the community are known largely within a tight circle because it is "an organization that doesn't seek publicity or headlines," said Story, a retired Degussa Corp. executive and Mobile native who resides on the Eastern Shore.
Story described Forward Mobile as representing "a cross section of the community," its diverse ranks -- black and white, male and female -- including university presidents, CEOs and banking leaders among a variety of influential occupations.
Among its members, in addition to Story, are BellSouth's Gigi Armbrecht, University of South Alabama President Gordon Moulton, Alabama Power's Cheryl Thompson, Mobile Register publisher Howard Bronson, BankTrust's Mike Fitzhugh, Bestor Ward of Ward Properties, Commonwealth National Bank's Gary Cooper, Mobile Works' Sydney Raine, Mobile Gas's John Davis, businessman Mayer Mitchell, Lowell Friedman of Creola Investments and John Lewis of Lewis Communications.
Story, however, did not identify any Forward Mobile member by name during his talk, although he did remark that a few were in the audience.
Story was introduced by Bobby Guthans of Midstream Fuel.
Speaking the day after Mobile's Brookley Field was announced as the site of EADS North America's proposed $600 million, 1,100-employee tanker assembly plant, Story said the public's knowledge of the effort to win such a prize is only the tip of a much larger iceberg.
"A project like this (EADS), a lot of things go on behind the scenes that the public never hears about," Story said. "Do you not think (retired Congressman and defense expert) Jack Edwards (R-Ala.) had a hand in this somewhere?"
Story said the beginnings of Forward Mobile trace back 40 or 50 years ago to civic luminaries such as McRae and Pharr who along with other community leaders met informally whenever a development of importance to the area arose or an issue needed urgent attention.
"They would get together and the issue was taken care of," he said.
Some 20-25 years ago, the leaders of the community decided to revive that approach to bettering the Mobile area and "for want of a better word, called it 'Forward Mobile,'" Story stated.
The group's sole purpose, said Story, is to "work for the betterment of Mobile and to move the community forward."
"The idea is to work with other groups," he said. "Just as the EADS' project was a collaborative effort, Forward Mobile seeks to pull together all groups and interests without concern for who gets credit. When you can pull together that way, your chances for success are much better."
"Forward Mobile is comprised of about 40 people, some of whom are here today," he continued. "We have never sought to be visible. We meet approximately once a month unless an emergency arises, such as with the recent School Board opening."
"A lot of the good that our organization does stems from the opportunities we are able to create to sit down with political leaders -- congressmen, U.S. senators, county commissioners, council members, Mayor (Mike) Dow, the speaker of the House, the Senate pro tempe," Story said. "I think you can just imagine if you're an elected official the value of an opportunity to sit down and have an intensive discussion with the kind of talent and experience that is gathered around that (Forward Mobile) table."
When reflecting on Forward Mobile, Story said he cannot help but think back four or five years ago when the community and the school system were at a crossroads. Forward Mobile had a role in pulling together a coalition that successfully engineered the area's first new tax for education in about 40 years, laying the groundwork for subsequent community building developments.
"I'm sure it was the broadest coalition the city has ever put together," he said. "And just the time before we got beat three-to-one (in a bid to boost local education revenues)."
"As (Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO) David Bronner said over and over, had Mobile failed to pass that tax, he and his investments would have gone elsewhere," Story reminded. "These things we see today are the result of the community doing the right thing then. I look back now and wonder what if we had not been successful (in the school tax referendum)? A) Where would our schools be? and B) Where would our community be?"
"At Forward Mobile we were hoping to be a small part of the that referendum('s success)," said Story.
"(School Superintendent Harold) Dodge was fairly new (to the job) when he came to our group and told us of the needs he had," Story recalled. "No. 1 was to tell the community what the school system was doing to try to save our schools and he didn't have the money (to communicate the message). So we were able to help with that."
"Our success resides in our ability to sit down at the right time with the right people and give valuable input whenever we feel like we have something to offer on the subject and often we do," he said.
Story praised the work of the Mobile Area Education Foundation and its director, Carolyn Akers.
"The transitional schools' success is exciting to see," he said. "There are people from all over coming to Carolyn Akers and asking, 'Tell us what you're doing.' We hear all too often the bad things (about public schools), but there are a lot of good things going on, believe me. There's been a lot of progress and a lot of it is because of the Mobile Area Education Foundation."
Forward Mobile recently has become more involved in "candidate recruitment," said Story.
"If you are going to improve government at any level, it is important to identify better people to run for office," he said. "We have been able to fill some positions with people who had something to offer and who may not have entered the race (without Forward Mobile's encouragement)."
To achieve its full potential, the Mobile area's disparate elements must come together as a team, compromising enough to work toward a common end, said Story.
"We want to help create a climate where an EADS will say 'this is a community we want to be a part of,'" Story said. "It's about unity. If (EADS CEO Ralph) Crosby were here today, that's what he would tell you. In these situations, you will hear it over and over: that businesses want to come into a community that works together. Some of you may never have heard of Forward Mobile and that's fine because that's not our purpose. You should be aware that not everything is seen. That things are bubbling under the surface that make days like yesterday's EADS' announcement happen."
Do not think, said Story, that potentially $600 million investments come easily. The competition is fierce and smart, he said.
"Way back when Degussa was a $200 million investment, that was the biggest ever in George Wallace's time," Story said. "Now this could be three times that."
According to Story, a key to look at following a new industry's recruitment is its subsequent willingness to expand.
In the case of the Mercedes plant in Vance near Tuscaloosa, the Alabama Development Office fought industry chatter that the Mercedes name would be tarnished by its association with Alabama, that in any event Mercedes would not be able to sell vehicles that were built in Alabama.
According to Story, in a bid to counter that whisper campaign, local Degussa leader Sven-Peter Mansfeld met with the Mercedes board of directors on at least three occasions, pointing out that Degussa, a fellow German company, had gone from an initial $200 million investment to a $1.2 billion stake in Alabama through its expansions. Mansfeld assured them that had the Mobile area not supplied competent workers and a good quality of life, Degussa would've been shrewd enough to cut its losses and move on.
Story said Degussa underwent at least seven expansions before his retirement and "you don't do that unless you're successful."
"EADS had a lot of choices and there is a lot of credit to be spread around to people who worked awfully hard," he said.
"We play a role working behind the scenes, our group sitting down with the mayor or a council member when we have an issue and asking, 'how can we help?' Story said. "We offer our expertise and input in the hope that it may help an elected official make the right decision. The bottom line with Forward Mobile is we try to meet with the right person at the right time to talk about the right issue."
Story started with Degussa in June 1974 as its first-ever American employee. Story retired from Degussa in November 2002 after serving 13 years as Vice President of Government & Public Affairs and media spokesperson, during which time he was responsible for managing all state, federal and international legislation affecting all operations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Story is currently a consultant to a number of companies and works on contract with the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) on federal legislation affecting BCA's 5000 member companies. In addition, he serves on the Health Care Committee of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C.
Locally, in addition to his commitment to the Mobile Works board, Story serves as chairman of both Forward Mobile and the Mobile chapter of Volunteers of America. He is also active on the boards of Springhill Hospital and Junior Achievement.
Story is also a charter member the City of Mobile's Mayor's Advisory Committee, which is overseeing the Air Quality Study for Mobile County, and the Legislative Task Force of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.