March 20, 2021

Pete, ever the table host


In the late 1990s, I realized I was an empty nester, turning 60, and completely burned out at my job.  Pete and Pat Cannon and their three sons were longtime friends from church and the international student ministry they began near the University of South Carolina.  Pete and I ran into each other at a fundraiser and were catching up on recent activities.  He casually mentioned he’d recently invested in a couple of downtown office buildings and was trying to start a “business improvement district” to encourage business and residential development in the sluggish downtown.

“You ought to come work on that with me,“ he said.  What? I went to his office a week or so later and we talked about his big ideas and what my job would be. First of all, the most salary he could offer me was about 60% less than I was currently earning. Benefits would be greatly reduced.  I’d have a desk in a big office shared with his youngest son Ronnie. Of course I jumped at the chance!

Pete was trying to get his three sons started up in their respective businesses.  He’d bought a building across the street from our office for the eldest son Rich and his promising entrepreneurial software startup (which he later sold to Microsoft). Middle son Robbie was starting up a financial management company and used offices in our building.  Ronnie was a recent college grad and training to be a commercial real estate broker.

The only other fulltime employee was the wonderful redhead Pat Graham who handled all the routine office and payroll responsibilities.  Pat and Pete were in and out as he divided his time between the commercial investments and the ministry.  They had bought a beautiful big house just across the street from the Law School at Carolina.  On three weekdays they served free homecooked meals to 300 to 400 students.  They also provided places for them to study, helped them find furniture and housing, and had conversational English classes on site. Church volunteers would help cook and serve the lunches and then enjoy conversation with bright young students from China, India, Germany, France, Korea, Japan, Uganda, Kenya, and even Reunion Island.

Pete set up a nonprofit organization we named Sumter Exchange.  He and I were its only employees.  We had a logo, business cards and letterhead stationery.  His son Rich laughingly (but pretty accurately) described it as an “imaginary company.”

Ronnie had to teach me how to use a PC—I’d only had a Mac computer at my previous job. I did research on how to organize a business improvement district, called people in other cities to learn from their experiences with them, organized the public information phase for Columbia.  We met with city officials—mayor, city manager, council members, downtown property and business owners. After almost 18 months, we reached a roadblock—and couldn’t seem to finalize the process.  

Pat Cannon began stopping by my desk more often, always telling me that Pete couldn’t afford my salary and encouraging me to look for something else.  Pete said everything was fine.  I was getting desperate and looking online for job prospects.  Within a few months, I’d talked to the downtown people in Nashville who referred me to a California consultant they were using. I called him, he came to Columbia and helped us wrap up our BID campaign. Columbia finally had the first business improvement district in the state of South Carolina. Then Steve offered me a job working for him—in Nashville!  There I would begin a wonderful 16-year career with the Nashville Downtown Partnership.  All because Pete opened doors for me.  

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