Across Alabama, 120 chambers of commerce are serving as the voice of their local business communities. Nearly all manage traditional duties such as advocacy, industry recruitment and economic development. But in many communities, their roles and duties are evolving and expanding like the municipalities they serve.
“For years, retail recruitment was off the table, ” says Jeremy Arthur, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama.
“Chambers did a lot of industrial recruitment and manufacturing and white collar recruitment, but you didn’t really see retail recruitment. But some progressive chambers have gotten into retail recruitment for a variety of reasons. Obviously, retail impacts quality of life. It’s also the largest generator of sales and use taxes, so it helps a city’s bottom line.”
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Besides retail recruitment, chambers of commerce are partnering with local public school districts, community colleges, four-year institutions and civic leaders to help update and improve school curricula, host job training programs and other educational experiences that will ultimately produce the skilled workforce that industries want.
Many chambers also are promoting diversity in human resources by teaming up with agencies like the Small Business Administration to support and encourage women and minorities to establish businesses, Arthur says. Moreover, chambers also work individually and with economic developers to write master plans and community analyses that are useful for the recruitment aimed at economic diversity. It is a strategy that helps ensure that a town or city can survive if a particular industry closes, he says.
“So if you’re too heavy in manufacturing, you may want to reach out to white collar or high tech jobs or add some more retail, ” he says.
In addition, chambers of commerce encourage tourism by advertising their city or town’s best assets and quality of life, Arthur says. The idea is to appeal to not only potential visitors but also to those who may consider relocating or opening a business in the area.
“A chamber of commerce, ” Arthur says, “is really a community’s department of progress. Who doesn’t want to be a part of progress?”
When Jennifer Palmer started her new job as president of the Albertville Chamber of Commerce 10 years ago, the Chamber Board’s mandate to her included retail recruitment, she says. At the time, the city’s retail base had been stagnant for years, she says.
“People were reluctant to go to the chain stores and the big box stores because they were really afraid of how it would [affect] small and local businesses, ” Palmer says. “So it took us a lot of years of getting over the stigma once I came on board.
“We immediately started reaching out to large retail developers and letting them know that we were here, ” she says. “We’ve had a booth at the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) and other trade shows to create visibility. We were told from the beginning that we might see results in five to seven years in a good economy and seven to 10 years in a bad one, but if we didn’t start, we would always be behind.”
The Chamber’s efforts have resulted in the addition of new retail stores in recent years, including Walgreens, the chain steakhouse Santa Fe Cattle Co. and the fast-food chain Bojangles Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits. The new 135, 000-square-foot, $18 million retail and restaurant complex, Shoppes of Albertville, located off U.S. 431 and Carlisle Street, is set to open in the spring 2016, with stores that will include T.J.Maxx, Hobby Lobby, Ross Dress for Less and PetSmart.
Palmer credits the city’s success at attracting more national brands to a team effort among the Chamber, city officials and Albertville’s economic development office.
“So now when we go and present at conferences, the Chamber is not only selling and marketing the city but we now have a mayor and economic developer who will follow up and make the deal happen, ” Palmer says. “A lot of that is incentives. It’s hard to land good retail without some kind of incentive package, and that’s not something that the Chamber can do directly. You have to have input from the city.”
Today, retail establishments make up 32 percent of the Chamber’s members, Palmer says. To support the businesses, the Chamber promotes initiatives that encourage Albertville residents to shop local. One example is an annual fall event where the Chamber meets with new teachers in the schools to encourage them to spend their dollars in Albertville, Palmer says.
“We’re right in between Guntersville and Boaz, ” Palmer says, “but Albertville has three times the population. So if we don’t land it in our city limits, people will go to the neighboring town to buy it. And yet, we have three times the population to provide services like police and fire and all of the services that rely on sales tax revenue.”
The Shoppes of Albertville, a 135, 000-square-foot, $18 million retail and restaurant complex, is set to open in spring 2016.
In Morgan County, several large national and multinational companies have set up operations in the area, from BP, 3M and Daikin Chemical to Big Heart Pet Brands and Nucor Steel.
Making sure these and other companies can employ a skilled and highly qualified workforce from the area is a major focus of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, says Mandy Price, the organization’s director of workforce development and education.
The Chamber links workforce development with education based on a philosophy that creating a skilled workforce for the future must start in the schools, Price says.
“I look at it from the standpoint of cradle to career, ” says Price. “When people hear workforce development, a lot of them immediately think career tech. But workforce development and education go hand-in-hand.
“There are statistics that link pre-K classes to careers and how much money people make, ” she says. “So, it shows that we have to start as early as possible.”
The Decatur-Morgan County Chamber’s Workforce Coalition Committee brings education and industry together. Industry leaders discuss the skills their companies are looking for in their workers. In turn, the educators share information on what they can do to help prepare students for the jobs, Price says.
So far, the Chamber Committee, along with Calhoun Community College, have teamed up to offer “SWeETy Camp, ” a four-day Summer Welding and Electrical Technology program that is held in July. Through the program, high school girls can get hands-on experience in welding and electrical trades.
This October, the Chamber hosted the annual “Endless Opportunities Hands-On Career Expo” at the Ingalls Harbor Pavilion. The annual event brings together more than 1, 800 eighth graders to learn about various occupations based on the 16 “Career Clusters” identified by the U.S. Department of Education. Speakers at this year’s event included representatives from banks, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, local law enforcement and several utility companies, Price says.
Another Chamber project called Equip Student Leadership introduces eighth graders, selected by their school counselors, to occupations that require less than a four-year college degree. Students in the program participate in industry tours, learn about various trades and talk with school counselors about career options.
“Through these programs and initiatives, ” Price says, “we’ve put several students to work through making the contacts with industry and the schools. Now they’re living and working here. We’re also helping to build a workforce and filling those needs for industry.
“It’s a long-term investment, ” says Price. “We’re going to have baby boomers retire, and we’re going to have a workforce to replenish that. My goal is for Decatur and Morgan County to be known for having a sustainable, high-skilled, highly trained workforce.”
In Walker County, Lewis Smith Lake is one of 13 waterways on the Alabama Bass Trail. This designation has been a huge economic engine since its unveiling in 2012 by the governor. In Alabama, anglers spend $700 million each year and this number will only continue to grow.
“If you are an avid angler you will fish on one of these 13 waterways, ” says Linda Lewis, president of the Walker County Chamber of Commerce and affectionately known as the Queen of Bass Fishing.
State, regional and national events have been hosted since 2001, and, according to Lewis, they will continue as long as they are supported by the community. The Bassmaster Open Series draws, on average, 200 boats, with at least two anglers per boat. The anglers bring their families and sponsors. They stay overnight, buy gas for their boats and vehicles, shop, eat and spend money in Walker County. These events can reach upward of $2 million. Usually, Lewis Smith Lake holds three events per year, drawing anglers from all over the world. High school tournaments draw an even bigger crowd, because each boat is required to have three anglers on board.
Regardless of what’s going on with the economy, anglers are going to fish, Lewis says. It’s a family friendly activity that attracts boys and girls, men and women.
“This is how some of them earn their living, ” Lewis says. “Economy dips don’t affect it much.”
Farther south, Alabama’s coastal area is working to move tourism beyond beach time.
With the help of the local community, the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber located a 40-year-old retired Dutch cargo ship. They purchased the ship, transported it to the coast, de-hazmatted it and sunk it 17 miles off the coast to create a reef for diving. The cost of the project was $500, 000, and they were able to raise $840, 000. In two years, diving has quintupled. Other projects have been added, including an underwater playground and underwater wedding altar. A 180-foot barge has also been sunk for a mid-range diving attraction.
“The reef project is the perfect example of the community coming together, ” says Ed Rodriguez, chamber president and CEO. “It’s been great for the diving and fishing industry and has received national and international publicity.”
This out-of-the-box thinking helped to earn the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber the award for Chamber of the Year in North America from the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. The Coastal Alabama Business Chamber was selected for this invitation-only honor out of more than 5, 000 chambers of commerce across the continent.
While the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce recognizes the importance of tourism for its area, it also sees the necessity for diversity within tourism. According to Donna Watts, president and CEO, in the past 10 years tremendous strides have been made in diversifying. South Baldwin County is focused on families and also has a snowbird season with a loyal following. In an effort to attract people year round, the chamber has begun promoting sports tourism. Foley is currently building an 104, 000-square-foot indoor sports facility with 16 multi-purpose fields.
“Our role is to offer the right opportunities to keep businesses on their feet, ” Watts says. “We’re not slicing the pie, we’re growing the pie.”
In addition to tourism, the Foley area has a strong manufacturing presence. The chamber boasts members from across the country that do business in the area.
“We have to have diversity so if the tourists aren’t coming, we’re able to fall back on manufacturing.”
The Montgomery Chamber’s Diversity Summit gives insight on how to make a workforce reflect its customer base.
The Montgomery Chamber of Commerce has developing workforce diversity as one of the goals of its strategic economic development plan. For the past eight years the chamber has hosted the Diversity Summit to meet this goal. Regional and national speakers, exhibitors, panel discussions and breakout sessions come together in the River Region for this day-long gathering to talk about the importance of diversity in the workplace and how to make diversity a priority. Attendees leave with valuable, applicable information on how to ensure their workforce reflects the customer base.
The summit has grown each year, starting with 300 attendees the first year. Now, up to 700 participants attend this sold out event each year. The Diversity Summit has received a national certification every year from the HR Certification Institute, allowing HR professionals to earn CEUs by attending. This year’s summit not only covered diversity in traditional ways — race, gender, generational — but was also about inclusion. The theme of this year’s event was “Moving from Good Intentions to Workable Applications, ” focusing on the strength of different thoughts working together to strengthen an organization.
“The great thing about this summit is that it covers the entire spectrum of diversity, ” says Melissa Bowman, director of marketing and communication for the Montgomery Chamber. “Inclusion is about bringing together different thoughts to strengthen an organization and to create dynamic work environments where everyone feels valued.”
Gail Short and Laura Stakelum are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Short is based in Birmingham and Stakelum in Dothan.
Text by Gail Allyn Short and Laura Stakelum • Photos by Tyler Brown