Why RiverCenter Resignees Exemplify Larger Columbus Conundrum
Columbus wants to retain talented and educated people, but its actions continue to drive them away. Exploring this irony may provide the valuable insight needed to get it right.
As a whitewater raft navigates the Chattahoochee River, strong leadership ensures all hands work together. Poor leadership would turn the crew, leaving a stranded captain in an empty boat adrift.
Image Credit:
Lindsey Erin, via Unsplash.

This article is the opinion of the writer, which is based on the facts presented by the world around us.

The RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is a landmark staple of Downtown Columbus, Ga. Complete with grand entrance and a red-carpet interior, its halls have hosted a plethora of world-renowned acts at its Broadway location. 

But the days of sold-out showrooms may be numbered if the RiverCenter doesn’t address the large purple elephants currently residing in its grandiose foyer. 

From 2014 to 2019 alone, the RiverCenter accrued a cumulative net loss of more than $1.13 million. The organization has only produced positive revenue during one of those years in 2018, which was quickly overtaken by an even larger snowballing deficit the following year. 

The deficit coincides with the hiring of RiverCenter’s executive director, Norman S. Easterbrook, who took over charge of the organization in 2015.

Easterbrook has developed a reputation within the arts community throughout the greater Chattahoochee Valley region for being difficult to work with. However, one needn’t look too far to catch a glimpse of his tendencies. Just ask his own staff, or, what’s left of it.

In the last three years alone, six of his employees have quit, citing their reason for departure as a hostile work environment created and fostered by Easterbrook. Most of them walked off the job without even lining up future employment. They simply couldn’t stand it anymore.

Five of those six employees were female.

Many of the resignees filed formal complaints with the RiverCenter against Easterbrook and the continuously-worsening environment he had allegedly created for them. 

According to the former employees, their complaints largely centered around Easterbrook’s purported dictatorial behavior, general irrationality, and conniving tendency to undermine female employees based on their gender. 

But their complaints went largely ignored. The RiverCenter took no perceivable interest in investigating the situation. The status-quo remained, and Easterbrook’s alleged culture of misogynistic dictatorship continued. 

So the employees quit, one by one. They left — and not just from the RiverCenter. They left Columbus completely, in search of greener (and predictably more professional) pastures elsewhere. They’d had enough of the ever-known but largely taboo reality: the existence of the quasi-aristocratic good-old-boy club of Columbus, Ga.

The story of these six former RiverCenter employees is relatable to nearly all who have worked within the employ of the inner circles of Columbus. No one talks about it, even when it happens to them. 

Chances are high that if you’re reading this article you personally know of someone in Columbus who was either railroaded off a board, immorally terminated, or otherwise abused by a politically-motivated supermajority through absolutely no fault of their own. 

The question we need to ask is, “why?” Better yet, in all honesty, it would behoove “the powers that be” to reflect introspectively long enough to care about solving this self-destructive shortcoming themselves. 

Perhaps many of our fellow Columbusites  don’t know what to do, or, perhaps who to commiserate with when this happens — which is understandable, after all. Why would one burden one’s self with restitution when one is convinced it wouldn’t do any good to solve the issue? And so the cultural problem goes on unchecked.

Before we divulge any further, the reader must first understand that Columbus is a town built on so-called “old money” and “southern charm” — that is to say:  it’s practically owned by a few individuals who control anything and everything that occurs within its borders,  whom have no problem acting immorally to preserve that status-quo, and whom absolutely have no problem lying to your face about it to protect their image. If the gentry see it in their best interest to, say, design a new logo for the city themselves after having paid a professional firm to do it correctly, they’re going to do it themselves anyway. “To hell with the professionals — we know better, and everyone else will have to deal with it.” 

As a collective, these quasi-aristocrats are willing to move heaven-on-earth to facilitate their personal objectives. While some occasional good does sometimes prosper from their efforts, it is almost always a side effect; a necessity required to veil their self-interests under the guise of philanthropy. 

The obvious downside is that this often ruins the lives of the innocent in their way. The not-so-obvious downside, at least to the gentry, is that it also destroys the city itself in the long-run. Just as the RiverCenter’s cumulative fiscal deficit resulted from the long-term snowballing of immoral actions and poor managerial skill, so too does the absence of a talented and professional workforce in Columbus. 

While the above may sound harsh, it is an observable reality. The example of the RiverCenter is living proof. Ask yourself: what would happen to you if you had lost your organization $1.13 million, had a half-dozen of your staff file formal complaints against you, who then named you as the sole reason why they walked off the job? 

This writer is going to assume your answer doesn’t include the word, “retention.”

But yet the members of the Columbus gentry on the RiverCenter’s board of directors did not even care enough to act upon the numerous corroborating complaints. To them, it seems, the maintenance of public image was of the greater importance; it was easier to allow a few employees to slip away than to reprimand their executives in what would have likely become a rather public scandal.

The example of the RiverCenter is but one of many instances of this within Columbus. The proliferation of a clique-like social environment — which should have ended in high school — causes the most talented, effective, and genuinely caring of Columbusites to run for the hills. Unfortunately, those at “the top” are too obsessed with the opinions of their peers to realize the ironically counter-productive nature of their own actions. 

If Columbus truly wants to retain “talented and educated people” — an action area of the Columbus 2025 initiative — it needs to correct this cultural kneecapper. The gentry are shooting themselves in the foot and they’re frankly too arrogant to notice. 

Should they truly wish to retain the most talented, educated, productive, and caring Columbusites within their employ, then they must focus on proving  it — because no one that smart is ever going to tolerate what the gentry and their boards currently offer them. 

This writer lives here, too. We all want a better and brighter Columbus for our children and grandchildren. That said, heed this advice:

They’re going to keep taking their toys and leaving your sandbox if you don’t start to play nice.

The proof is in the pudding.

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