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Renewing leadership

Ben Goldstein on Tuesday, January 16, 2018 at 1:20:00 pm 

Since its inception in 1980, Leadership Fayetteville has been a hallmark initiative of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. In 2011, the chamber placed the program on a temporary hiatus, during which chamber staff puzzled over ways to ensure it would remain relevant for the 21st century.

“Our goal is to help leaders understand the interconnectedness of community sectors,” said Paige Muh, director of community relations at the Fayetteville Chamber in Arkansas. “Strong education systems attract parents who value education, which leads to more responsible citizens, and ultimately, a stronger talent pipeline for industry.”

Chamber staff spent a year surveying and conversing with program alumni and community leaders to revise the program’s curriculum and raise its credibility. Those discussions led to the addition of two new subjects, diversity and civil discourse, in addition to offerings like education, economic development and health and wellness.

“We wanted to shift from a show-and-tell experience to a more interactive environment,” said Muh. “Panelists and presenters are encouraged to share information in a dynamic, conversational style, and we adopted the use of the DISC Assessment to give participants a window into themselves and their interactions with others.”

Applications are accepted from members and non-members, and are reviewed by a team of alumni. The cohorts typically include about 20–25 participants, with a leadership made up of volunteers, co-chairs and chamber staff members—a change made during the program’s hiatus.

“Our leadership team serves not just as a planning team, but also as session facilitators,” said Kim Schnoes, chair of the chamber’s board of directors. “The intent of the sessions is to provide firsthand exposure to the challenges and opportunities here in our community, through panels, tours and interactive roleplays.”

“Our class projects focus on four specific areas: social connectedness, confidence in institutions, political participation and community involvement,” she continued. “In 2018, we added a national survey component, which will allow us to set benchmarks and compare ourselves to similarly-sized communities.

 Looking ahead, the major focus for the the initiative will be planning for increased sustainability, meaning keeping alumni engagement active and setting out succession plans for program leadership, according to Muh.

“It’s important for our program’s sustainability to provide similar opportunities for others, perhaps by having an emerging leaders program, or encouraging our grads to participate in regional and state programs,” she said. “By forming a network and enabling young people to be transactional with other community members, we are confident that we’ll continue to affect positive change in our community.”

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Tags: Leadership Development

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Life-size sculptures bring feet to the street

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 11:15:00 am 


The Simsbury Chamber of Commerce is investing in a series of 23 bronze statues to be placed around town next year, as part of a push to increase tourism and foot-traffic for the small western Connecticut town during the spring and summer months.

The statues, sculpted by renowned artist Seward Johnson, depict life-like human figures performing everyday activities, like a girl eating an ice cream cone and a man reading a newspaper on a park bench.

“Our biggest reason for doing this is to bring more visitors into town, to not only see these statues, but to frequent the businesses as well,” explained Lisa Gray, executive director of the Simsbury Chamber. “We envision having these statues placed around town and close to our local businesses, so people who are walking and biking can stop in later for a dinner or a beer.”

To pay for the walkable art display, the chamber held a kickoff party and fundraiser in late November at Simsbury Bank, its largest sponsor and the first business to contribute to the drive. The chamber is offering sponsorship levels ranging from $150 to $10,000.

“We’re reaching out to our local businesses to help them see that this will bring more people into town, which equals more business for them,” said Gray. “We’re also reaching out to residents, because there are a lot of people who are interested in art or getting outside during the spring and summer months.”

The idea was inspired by the chamber’s previous executive director, Ferg Jansen, who saw some of Johnson’s works on display while visiting family in Indiana. The reaction from stakeholders and the community has been largely positive so far, said Gray.

“Everybody loves the first piece that we call our teaser piece,” she said. “It’s called ‘Special Delivery,’ and it’s a statue of a mailman we have positioned out in front of a local grocery store. We’ve gotten loads of great emails and comments about it, and it’s been shared all over social media.”

The selection of sculptures will include Johnson’s renditions of famous American works, like “V-J Day in Times Square,” the iconic photograph that captured a sailor kissing a nurse at the end of World War Two, as well as “American Gothic,” the classic painting of a solemn-faced, colonial-era couple.

All told, the statues will be on temporary display for four months, from May–September 2018.

“Our community is about 10 miles outside of Hartford, and we have some local attractions, but not a ton that will bring people from other parts of the state,” explained Gray. “This will help us sustain our businesses through the slow summertime and get more feet on the street visiting our shops and restaurants.”

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Tags: Small Business, Tourism, Arts, Outdoors

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Youth apprentices lead the way

Ben Goldstein on Monday, January 8, 2018 at 9:15:00 am 

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce launched its Youth Apprentice Program in 2014 to reduce the skills gap and prepare students for local careers. Inspired by a visit to the Alamo Academies in San Antonio in 2013, the chamber partnered with Trident Community College to build out nine pathways, leading to careers in fields like industrial mechanics, HVAC tech and machining.

“The companies here are screaming for talent, just like all over the country,” said Robin Willis, associate vice president of talent pipeline strategies at the Charleston Metro Chamber. “We don’t embark on a new pathway unless it’s a high-demand field, and most of them are high-wage, too.”

The two-year program accepts high school juniors and seniors, who spend two afternoons each week learning career skills at Trident Technical College, and two hours working with host manufacturers. They also work full-time during the summer between grades 11 and 12, while earning a wage paid from the chamber’s Accelerate Greater Charleston fund.

“Right now, there are about 100 apprentices working in our region, and we pay for their tuition, books and supplies,” said Willis. “It’s an advantage to students because they get two years of paid work experience on their resume, 30 hours of college credit and a journeyman’s certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor.”

The program received an extra boost when Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit that helps schools incorporate career skills in their curricula, chose Charleston’s Youth Apprenticeship Program to be a pilot for a new engineering pathway. PLTW chose Charleston because the city’s high schools had already adopted parts of its engineering curriculum.

“We’re very lucky that all of the high schools in our region have paid for this for years, so we already have a pipeline of students in the engineering curricula,” said Willis. “This new pathway offers them a different exit ramp to use their skills, without necessarily completing a four-year engineering degree.”

Willis says the next step for the apprenticeship program will be securing a more sustainable source of long-term funding, which would enable a larger and more diverse cohort of students to participate.

“We want students from every level of society to be able to take advantage of these apprenticeships,” said Willis. “We want students who graduate high school with no plans to participate, because this will give them valuable exposure to great, high-demand fields here in our community.”

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Tags: Workforce Development, Apprenticeships, Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce

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A town hall blitz in Corpus Christi

Ben Goldstein on Monday, December 18, 2017 at 9:05:00 am 

When Cleo Rodriguez returned to Texas to head the United Corpus Christi Chamber, his first order of business was finding out how the community felt about his organization. To do this, he arranged a series of five town halls in October.

“When I came back from D.C., one of the first things I asked my staff was, ‘when was the last time we asked our members how satisfied they were?’” recalled Rodriguez. “When I heard we hadn’t done that, I began planning this mini-tour, and told everyone to be ready to set ourselves up to potentially take a beating.”

The chamber organized the town halls into five different segments: community stakeholders, current members, former members, Spanish-speaking businesses and non-member businesses.

“I wanted to divide the town halls into those populations because I felt like the audiences had different priorities,” explained Rodriguez. “For the Spanish-speaking group, we went to a heavily-Latino part of town and did the whole thing in Spanish, so we could maximize participation.”

During the town hall sessions, Rodriguez posed two questions to his audiences: “what is the chamber doing well?” and “what does it need to improve on?”

“The biggest theme that came out of these conversations was small businesses—what are we doing to help them?” he said. “We have a huge port here and lots of major players in the oil and gas industry. Our small businesses would love to figure out how they can interact and work with some of these bigger guys.”

“Another theme was that our stakeholders and the public want to see us provide more consistent communication,” he continued. “Overall though, the feedback was mostly positive, and the criticisms we did get were helpful and constructive.”

Rodriguez says the chamber’s next steps are to use the feedback and insights from the town halls to formulate a strategic plan, which will be developed during a staff retreat. He plans to support the new plan with another round of town halls to continue the dialogue with the public.

“I want to go out and do town halls again to show the community that we heard their feedback and we’re moving the organization forward,” he said. “It’s a risk because I know nobody here has done this before. For us, the proof will be in the pudding when we can show everyone how the new plan is taking action.”

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Tags: Town Halls, United Corpus Christi Chamber, Cleo Rodriguez, Community Engagement

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Staying ahead of Industry 4.0 v

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, December 14, 2017 at 12:15:00 pm 

The Quad Cities Chamber, which serves business in the five-city metro region of northwestern Illinois and southeastern Iowa, launched its Manufacturing Innovation Hub in 2015. The Hub, as it’s called, was designed to be a one-stop resource center for regional manufacturers to learn about the latest technologies impacting their industries.

“We’re in the start of what we call Industry 4.0,” said Mike Coughlin, executive director of the Manufacturing Innovation Hub. “With all the information available now, the question is, ‘how do our companies actually utilize that information in their systems to become more efficient?’”

The program helps businesses identify opportunities for technology adoption within companies’ systems and supply chains. It uses one-on-one assessments, during which specialists tour facilities and workshops, administer questionnaires and meet with management to discuss current and projected trends in high-tech and manufacturing.

“We have local experts who go in and provide assessments to organizations looking for opportunities to add efficiency,” said Coughlin. “When we’ve identified such an opportunity, we provide them with local companies that possess the skill set to assist them in capitalizing on the knowledge they’ve gained.”

In 2016, The Hub launched its Technology Roadmap, which outlined regional strengths and weaknesses in manufacturing, as well as emerging technologies like virtual reality, robotics and data analytics.

“We gathered all the data and locked about 40 people with different skill sets in a meeting room for a couple of days,” recounted Coughlin. “The roadmap helps companies understand what the technology is, how it will affect them, how to integrate it and who to contact for guidance.”

“The goal of the meetings and conversations was to create a real understanding of how these technologies will disrupt our industries,” he continued. “We’re engaged with our local colleges and universities, so we’re able to bring them an understanding of what the business community is saying with regards to needs and training.”

Coughlin says the benefits of the program will be felt by all industries in the region, as the knowledge shared filters back into the workplace, leading to increased efficiency and productivity for manufacturers and businesses.

“These conversation need to continue so we can raise awareness and foster a community-wide dialogue,” said Coughlin. “The synergies you get from building this ecosystem and having conversations like this will enhance the opportunities for all businesses in the Quad Cities region.”

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Tags: Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub, Technology, Innovation, Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce

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LAUNCHing careers in South Central Kentucky

Ben Goldstein on Monday, December 11, 2017 at 9:15:00 am 

SCK LAUNCH is an initiative of the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce that encourages students to explore local career opportunities, while learning valuable soft-skills at the same time.

“We have about 6,000 open positions in South Central Kentucky right now,” explained Kim Phelps, vice president of communications and public policy at the Bowling Green Chamber. “This is a wonderful place to live and work, but as the community grows, we want our kids to stay, and we want our alumni to come back to work here also.”

The initiative was conceived as an extension of two successful programs in the community: The Leader in Me, which teaches elementary school students about leadership and soft skills; and LEAD, which further develops those skills for middle school students. SCK LAUNCH, in contrast, builds on those programs by exposing teens to local industries to get them thinking about potential careers.

“Our students are learning leadership skills from the time they’re in kindergarten all the way through graduation,” said Phelps. “When they get to high school, it becomes more about laying the hard skills on top of the soft skills, and when students graduate, they will have an industry credential of some kind,” she added.

SCK LAUNCH offers career shadowing to high school students to raise awareness about the variety of careers available in the region. Through the program, teens get the opportunity to tour plants and facilities, meet with employees and observe how they work in their natural environments..

Through “educator externships,” teachers visit companies to learn about the types of jobs offered and the education and skills required. Afterward, they can adjust their curricula and lesson plans to more effectively steer students into local career opportunities.

“A lot of teachers go from high school to college and then straight back to the classroom, so they actually don’t have a clear picture of what they are preparing their students for,” explained Phelps. “These experiences give them context, so they can help students understand why the work they’re doing is valuable.”

Phelps cites the newly-cemented relationship between business and education as the greatest achievement of SCK LAUNCH, and says she hopes collaboration will continue—even after the chamber eventually dials back its own involvement in the initiative.

“One of the things that has been so unique and rewarding for us is having the business and education communities sit down at the same table, look each other in the eye and actually talk to one another,” she said. “At the end of the day, the integration of the career mindset in our schools is really the goal.”

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Tags: SCK Launch, Soft Skills, STEM, Workforce Development, Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce, Internships

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College town makes the grade

Ben Goldstein on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 8:00:00 am 

In early November, a group of stakeholders from Tuscaloosa publicly signed a memorandum of agreement outlining a shared commitment to integrate the region’s manufacturing and industrial base to better match the skills of students graduating from the University of Alabama.

The move was intended to realign the local economy to include more knowledge-based, tech-driven jobs, so the university city could retain a larger portion of its student population.

“The opportunity we have from an economic development perspective is diversifying our economic base,” said Jim Page, president and CEO at the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. “We’re hoping this formal partnership is going to lead to more knowledge-based jobs being created, so we can hold on to a larger percentage of our college grads.”

The memorandum was signed at the chamber’s annual State of the Economy event, in which it hosts local economic and subject matter experts to forecast trends for the upcoming year. The function was attended by elected leaders, university administrators and several local development agencies.

“The ceremony was really about generating public awareness, as much as anything,” said Page, adding that, “It was largely a symbolic gesture that shows we’re going to start working toward this new goal of collaboration.”

Page says the agreement was inspired by conversations from conference calls and roundtables with the University Communities Council, an ACCE peer-group that enables chamber pros from college towns to collaborate and share best practices. He credits Vern Squier from the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County in Pennsylvania and Lyle Butler from the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce in Kansas for introducing him to similar agreements from their regions.

“Right out of the gate, I’ve got two chamber colleagues who’ve had success doing this, so there was kind of a template for our group to use,” he said. “We never would’ve known about those agreements — and chances are we wouldn’t be where we are now — had I not been engaged with the University Communities Council.”

“We’re hoping this will enable us to grow and recruit more knowledge-based, white-collar jobs,” he added. “I’m hopeful that all of those forces working together can turn years of talk into real action, and that action will result in a diversified economic base that allows us to retain more of our best and brightest college students.”

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Tags: University Cities Council

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Midwestern momentum

Ben Goldstein on Sunday, November 19, 2017 at 9:35:00 am 

For Matt Pivarnik, president and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, the most important part of any strategic plan is the results. So when the chamber and its community partners began crafting Momentum 2022, he opted for a five-year plan, as opposed to some of the longer-running strategic documents seen elsewhere.

“We chose a 60-month plan because we wanted to have an immediate and measurable impact,” said Pivarnik. “We didn’t call this Momentum 2035 or Momentum 2050 for a reason.”

In its early stages, the plan was guided by a 43-member steering committee that drew from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Among the committee’s findings was a need for enhanced talent development efforts to build out a stronger workforce for the region.

“We put a very heavy focus on development of homegrown talent in Momentum 2022,” said Kayla Bitler, strategic coordinator at the Greater Topeka Chamber. “Some areas of emphasis are ensuring that all children are ready for kindergarten, and that every student has a pathway to college or a career.”

A second leg of the campaign is enhancing “quality of place” in the Topeka region, by building out amenities like pedestrian walkways, expanding access to the city’s riverfront and adding more recreational and residential offerings to the city’s downtown core—a process Pivarnik says is already underway.

“We’re seeing a real resurgence in restaurants and bars,” he said, adding, “If you want a loft in downtown, you’ll have to get in line, because right now everyone wants a loft in downtown.”

The plan calls for the consolidation of the Greater Topeka Chamber and three other economic development groups — GO Topeka, Visit Topeka and Downtown Topeka Inc. — into one umbrella organization, which will be called Greater Topeka Partnership. The organizations will retain their boards and CEOs, and will coordinate through a council including the four CEOs, their chair-elects and several at-large members.

“Bringing together these four groups will enable all of us to perform our work with a type of coordination we haven’t seen in the past,” said Curtis Sneeden, the chamber’s executive vice president. “We’ll enjoy a number of operational efficiencies just by being together under one roof.”

Pivarnik says he brought the idea for the consolidation of the four groups with him from his previous role at the Greater Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, which operates under a similar structure.

“When I was at the Tulsa Chamber, which has 15-plus organizations and brands operating under one umbrella, I didn’t understand how powerful that structure really was until I had to operate without it,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think it’s efficient for cities to have all of these separate convention and visitors bureaus and downtown organizations.”

Pivarnik says he hopes that by 2022, people from around the world will think of Topeka as a city that has undergone a rapid transformation in a short period of time.

“When people hear about Topeka, Kansas, in the future, I want them to think of it as a ‘renaissance city,’ and a magnet for entrepreneurial development and talent attraction,” he said. “We want people from around the world to know about all of the positive things happening in our region.”

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Tags: Talent Attraction and Retention, Topeka Chamber, Economic Development, Strategic Plan

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Immigration fuels the Great Lakes region

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, November 16, 2017 at 9:00:00 am 

The Great Lakes region is an economic powerhouse, fueled by manufacturing, international trade and a combined GDP of more than $6 trillion.

One of the biggest drivers of regional growth is sometimes absent from the popular narrative—immigration. That message is on display in a new report from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition, published in partnership with New American Economy.

“We wanted to respond to the narrative that our region is isolationist and not welcoming of immigrants,” said Brandon Mendoza, manager of government affairs at the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. “We wanted to say, 'actually, immigration in this region has helped accelerate our economies away from what folks refer to as the Rust Belt and the manufacturing decline.'”

One important way that immigration fuels economic growth is by combatting population decline and out-migration. Immigrants were responsible for more than half of the region’s population growth from 2000–15. Foreign-born workers are also younger, on average, than their native-born counterparts, which helps keep the region’s workforce youthful and vital as Baby Boomers retire in large numbers.

“When you look at the top 25 metros in the Great Lakes area, immigration has been a net-positive in terms of reversing out-migration and growing their populations,” said Mendoza. “It’s a lifeblood for a lot of these cities like Pittsburgh, Rochester or Akron, where slow population growth really acts as a drag on economic growth, in general.”

But immigrants are not only filling jobs, the report found. They are also creating them, in large numbers. The study found that immigrant entrepreneurs make up 20 percent of small business owners, and have created over 226,000 jobs in the region from 2000–15.

“Immigrants, by their very nature, are risk-takers,” explained Mendoza. “They’re taking a big risk moving to a foreign country and restarting, so they’re more inclined to start new businesses.”

Mendoza stressed that immigration should be understood as a regional issue, not a national one.

“Our whole message is that we should be thinking about immigration in terms of regions,” he said. “In the Great Lakes region, we really need to make sure our immigration numbers are high and we’re supporting high-skill immigrants, as well as comprehensive legislation at some point in the future.”

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Tags: Immigration, Research, Survey, Great Lakes Chambers Coalition, Great Lakes Region

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Energized to save

Ben Goldstein on Monday, November 13, 2017 at 8:00:00 am 

Tony Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, has seen a lot of things change in his 17-year career leading the organization. And even now, as he makes plans to step down from the helm, Rescigno is exploring ways to transform the chamber’s energy footprint to a more sustainable model better-suited for the 21st century.

He’s doing it through the Energize Connecticut initiative, a partnership between the state of Connecticut and its utility providers that helps businesses and residences trim energy costs. The program is funded through the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, which, in turn, is paid for through a surcharge on customer energy bills.

“A year ago we went from having a lease that didn’t include energy costs to a new lease that required us to pay, and you have a different attitude when you have to pay for it,” said Rescigno. “Through this program, we’ve estimated projected savings of over $5,000 annually, which is huge for us.”

Rescigno says the chamber has already realized substantial savings by swapping out the chamber’s old lighting for 256 LED fixtures designed to reduce costs and improve lighting quality. Next, he wants to replace the chamber’s fleet of 45 heating and air conditioning units with newer, more efficient models through the energy initiative.

“The cost of energy in the state of Connecticut is unbelievably high, and it’s one of the major deficits we face trying to attract businesses,” said Rescigno. “The fact that we’re showing other businesses how to lower those costs by investing in energy efficient alternatives is something we’re very proud of.”

Through Energize Connecticut, workers from state utility United Illuminating visited the chamber and drafted a conservation plan to help it identify opportunities for saving. The chamber’s monthly lighting bills are already one-third lower, down from $1,500 to $1,000.

“The first thing they do is send somebody to do an analysis and literally count the light fixtures,” said Rescigno. “The total investment on our part is less than $4,000, and we plan on making that all up in a year or less, so we weren’t at all worried about putting up the cash for this.”

Rescigno, who announced plans to retire earlier this year, said he’s accepted a part-time position at Southern Connecticut State University as a business executive-in-residence. One of his tasks in that job will be facilitating collaboration between the local business community and its talented student population, which includes Yale University.

“My next job will involve connecting the business school with the students with the businesses in the region,” he said. “That plays into my strengths, because I’ve been around a long time and I know a lot of these people.”

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Tags: Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, Sustainability, Cost-Savings, Energy usage

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