I've long been skeptical of the bi-annual Inter-city Visits organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, err sorry, that's actually the Chamber-owned Partnership for a Sustainable Community. The intention to visit a community and learn from their successess and failures is a good one. But the reality of an expensive trip with the wealthy and powerful of Chapel Hill - where the learning stops when the return flight touches down at RDU - is a little different.
Four years ago, I put my (and your) money where my mouth is and went on the trip to Ann Arrbor, MI. I got a scholarship of about $700 from the Chamber, raised about $200 from OP readers, and pitched in over $200 of my own money as well as 2 vacation days from work to make it possible. I enjoyed the trip somewhat (being in the first trimester of my pregnancy didn't help), learned a bit from the organized panels and tours, and met some nice people (a lot of real estate agents and UNC administrators). Then it was over. There was no significant effort to encapsulate the learnings for people back home, not much documentation of the trip, and no follow-up opprtunity to process the information we had all digested in different ways.
I understand the Inter-city Visit went to Asheville in 2010, partially as a way to defray the cost of flying a small conference across the country. With a one-year-old child I wasn't able to attend, and in addition I never could have afforded the expense even with the lower travel costs. This year, Bloomington, IN is the city of choice and once again the Chamber has been saying things like "Diverse leaders from across our community, including local business owners and managers, elected officials, university leaders, non-profit leaders, municipal and county staff, and community members, will participate in the 2012 Inter-City Visit. All members of our community are welcome and encouraged to participate."
Let's tell the truth. The cost of the trip ranges from $1,195 to $1,495, with limited scholarships available covering up to about $700. This seems like little more than a junket for well-connected and affluent members of the community who stand to benefit from access to our elected and appointed government officials. It may be educational, but it's still a junket and does very little to serve the rest of the community that can't afford to (or doesn't want to) participate in the trip. Kristen Smith is the Chamber staffer that coordinates the trip, and last month she thoughtfully invited me to coffee to discuss my criticisms.
We had a very positive conversation, and it resulted in a whole list of ways the Inter-City Visit could serve more of the community than the priviledged particpants. Some of our ideas included streaming some of the panels on the web, having designated bloggers to document in real time (and bring back ideas from virtual participants), and establishing a committee of travellers and non-travellers to think about how to connect more people to the educational aspects of the trip and bring more of the learning home to benefit all of us. I haven't seen any steps toward implementing those ideas, but perhaps some good will come of it.
Are any of you going? If so, what do you hope to get out of the trip?
(ROI stands for return on investment.)