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St. Louis Regional Chamber looks full speed ahead

Ben Goldstein on Wednesday, February 28, 2018 at 10:00:00 am 

St. Louis, Missouri’s newest venture sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. The city is vying to become the first in the world to host a hyperloop—a proposed mode of high-speed transportation, in which passengers travel in pods that levitate magnetically in systems of airless tubes.

It’s doing it through the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a competition in which metro regions from around the world propose prospective routes to house the first-ever hyperloop built by Virgin Hyperloop One, the Los Angeles-based company looking to commercialize hyperloops as a more efficient mode of transit.

At just over a half-hour, the planned route between St. Louis and Kansas City would shave roughly three-and-a-half hours off the current commute by car between the two major population centers.

“If we can link St. Louis and Kansas City into a single megaregion, we would have more than 5 million people in that workforce,” said Andrew Smith, vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation at the St. Louis Regional Chamber. “That would catapult us to the 9th largest economic development region in the country.”

To promote the proposal, the chamber teamed up with the University of Missouri System, the Kansas City Tech Council, the Missouri Department of Transportation, the Columbia Innovation Center and others to form the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition. The coalition’s first move was to raise $1.5 million for an engineering feasibility study, which began in February and will run through the end of the summer.

“Right now, we are one of only two regions in the country that are at that stage—the other being Colorado,” said Smith, adding that, “Virgin Hyperloop One is now calling us one of the top three routes under consideration in the world.”

When the study wraps up in August, the coalition will have the benefit of a detailed roadmap, with details on costs, route alignment, regulatory framework and environmental impact. Following that, the focus will shift to onboarding additional partners with the capabilities to build the large-scale project.

“This is mostly a private-sector-led effort, and we’ve been very up-front about the fact that we aren’t using taxpayer money to fund it,” said Smith. “This is going to be more like building an airline or railroad than a public highway. We just have to find the right partners to build, own and operate it.”

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Tags: Economic Developmen, Hyperloop, Technology, Transportation, #MetroCities, #MidwesternChambers

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Advocating for education

Ben Goldstein on Friday, February 2, 2018 at 11:13:00 am 

The EdUp campaign was launched in 2013 by the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with leaders from the business and education communities. The campaign, which began as an advocacy effort to preserve funding levels to Fall River Public Schools, has since grown into a multi-year marketing push to promote the importance of education in southeastern Massachusetts.

“At its most basic, EdUp is about changing the mindset of the community,” said Rob Mellion, president and CEO of the Bristol County Chamber. “We knew we needed to get people to value education attainment if we wanted to stand a chance at turning around our school system.”

As part of the campaign, the chamber launched an aggressive marketing drive. Some of the tactics used include billboards, editorials drafted by community members and a special “EdUp Bus,” which is used for mobile ad space.

There’s also “College Day,” an annual event in which students and their parents spend a full day engaged in activities designed to get them thinking about practical ways to attend college. In addition, the education committee zeroed in on early childhood education through “parent nights,” which help parents understand how to navigate Pre-K and kindergarten on behalf of their children.

More recently, the campaign organized a summit on social and emotional learning, a specialized training that teachers had requested. During the summit, more than 220 teachers attended a mix of 40 workshops focused on supporting students’ emotional health, social skills and academic achievement.

“We have more students getting higher grades and going to college than ever before,” explained Mellion. “We used to have a 55 percent high school dropout rate; now, we have an 80 percent graduation rate. I’m proud of the work this chamber and the business community has done.”

Mellion says EdUp has lots on the agenda for 2018, like advocating for a new, $300 million high school in Fall River, adding college-level courses to area high schools and forging new partnerships with educators and nonprofits to advance its agenda.

“We’re not done with the job of changing the mindset here in the community,” he said. “We want to bring our graduation rate higher, and we want to expand this to be more of a regional campaign, affecting the entire southeastern region.”

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Grand Rapids Area Chamber probes local business

Ben Goldstein on Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 2:40:00 pm 

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber recently released the results of its annual government affairs survey of member businesses. The survey results show that workforce and talent issues continue to rank as top priorities for employers, with parking availability also surfacing as an issue of concern.

“We use this survey as an opportunity each year to see where our members are seeing some of their biggest obstacles and opportunities,” said Joshua Lunger, director of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber. “It’s an opportunity for us to investigate further into issues that we might not have been spending as much time on.”

The survey revealed business sentiment remains positive, with 96 percent of employers reporting a favorable or very favorable perception of the business climate in West Michigan. The biggest challenge, according to respondents, is finding qualified candidates to hire.

“We’re growing and creating jobs, but we don’t have enough folks to fill them,” said Lunger. “80 percent of companies reporting talent shortages say the cause is due to consistent business growth and job creation, rather than hiring to fill an existing slot,” he added. “This is actually a good problem to have.”

To address the talent shortage, Lunger says the chamber is focused on promoting skilled trades in public schools and through the Skilled Trades Training Fund, a statewide grant for employers, as well as encouraging greater investment in early childhood education.

“Talent and education policy is a very long game,” said Lunger. “You have to look at the whole picture, from access to high-quality childcare all the way to what’s in the curriculums of the schools.”

Another issue that emerged for the second year in a row was access to parking, with 28 percent describing it as a significant challenge. To address these concerns, Lunger says the chamber is advocating for increased supply.

“We had a group of members that met for a few months and came up with an eight-point parking and mobility plan,” he said. “Whether it’s parking a little further out and using a high-frequency transit service or improving our downtown circular, we want employers to have a whole list of options for how their employees can get to work.”

Lunger says that, while the survey revealed a consistently positive outlook among employers, the concerns raised regarding talent shows the business community can’t afford to become complacent.

“We titled the report: ‘Businesses like what they see, but addressing talent is critical to continued growth,’ and we think that really sums it up,” he said. “We have a lot of positives, but we can’t sleep on this talent issue. We need to put it front-and-center, and I think that’s true for most places in the country right now that are growing.”

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Tags: #MetroCities, #Survey, #Talent, #GovernmentRelations, #GreatLakesRegion

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Lights, chamber, action!

Ben Goldstein on Monday, January 29, 2018 at 7:54:00 am 

Since 2006, the Waco Chamber of Commerce has produced its own monthly TV show, “Chamber Connection.” The talk-show, which is broadcast on Waco City Cable Channel (WCCC), offers a platform for chamber members to speak directly to the community.

“It’s about giving our members a voice so they can tell their stories,” said Autumn Outlaw, the chamber’s director of marketing and communication and host of Chamber Connection. “The show gives them the opportunity to explain what their business is about, where they came from and why they’re a member of the chamber.”

WCCC is funded by a local tax on cable usage, which goes to public broadcast services. The station, which has a partnership with the Waco Chamber, covers the costs for nearly all aspects of the show’s production.

“The one question I try to ask everyone is, ‘Why would you encourage someone to join the chamber?’” said Outlaw. “Besides being a great message for former and prospective members, it allows people who aren’t business owners to hear how the chamber fosters collaboration and serves the community.”

Outlaw says her favorite part of the show is interviewing members and learning about the businesses they run.

“Doing Chamber Connection, I always learn so much more than I ever thought I would,” she said. “I love finding out what brought our members to Waco and why they do business here. It’s very rewarding to learn about the people we get to serve.”

“I also try to tie in our quarterly publication,” she continued. “For example, I recently pulled in one of our young professionals who was featured in the magazine, and he talked about why young people should move to Waco and the value the YP group brings to the community.”

Outlaw says the show’s reach has been growing and that the feedback she gets is mostly positive.

“We use snippets from the show on social media, and the reach has been fantastic,” she said. “I have people calling all the time asking if they can be interviewed on Chamber Connection.”

For chambers looking to start producing original video content, but unsure where to begin, Outlaw suggests starting out small.

“A cell phone video is an authentic way to capture people’s responses, which could be a good start for building a show of your own,” she said. “It’s also definitely worth reaching out to your local news stations to see if they’d partner with the chamber on some level, too.”

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Tags: Marketing, Public Relations, Television, Communications, Entertainment

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Tulsa gears up for the future

Ben Goldstein on Friday, January 26, 2018 at 1:00:00 pm 

Tulsa’s Future, the multiphase, regional economic development plan for the Tulsa, Oklahoma region, was designed to infuse the area with investment dollars, create jobs in targeted industries and develop a skilled workforce to attract new businesses.

“In the early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of money allotted to economic development, and the chamber and our partners wanted to change that,” said Brien Thorstenberg, senior vice president of economic development at the Tulsa Regional Chamber. “We developed the first iteration of Tulsa’s Future, with an original goal of adding more than 10,000 jobs with an average wage above $45,000.”

The plan thus far consists of three five-year phases. During Tulsa’s Future I, which ran from 2006–2010, the campaign helped create 15,888 jobs and added more than $482.6 million to the region’s payroll. Phase II, which ran from 2010–2015, went further, creating 28,814 jobs and adding more than $2 billion in capital investment.

The campaign is now in its third phase, which began in 2016. Tulsa’s Future III focuses on four main pillars: economic development and business attraction; workforce development and education attainment; entrepreneurs and small business; and quality of place and downtown revitalization.

“One of the things Tulsa’s Future III allowed us to do was increase our marketing budget, so we’re doing more in terms of website, digital marketing and building relationships with companies,” said Thorstenberg. “In terms of workforce development, we’re working hard to align the skills being taught in our public schools to match the needs of our companies.”

“On the innovation front, we’re working with our business incubator to target startups, and we hired a director of entrepreneurship who has a seat on the executive council of our board,” he continued. “We’ve also formed a downtown coordinating council to generate investment and improve walkability for our downtown area.”

Moving forward, Thorstenberg says the most important challenge will be maintaining the campaign’s momentum.

“Economic development is not like a light switch, where you can turn it on and off,” he explained. “Industries peak and go through swings, and sometimes new industries emerge. There are so many challenges out there, and we need to keep up the momentum so we can successfully navigate them.”

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Tags: Strategic Plan

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Never too young to start a business

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, January 18, 2018 at 11:45:00 am 

The Knoxville Chamber of Commerce launched its Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) in 2015 to teach middle- and high school students how to create and operate their own business. The program, which runs for a full academic year, has graduated more than 4,000 youth, who have gone on to found social media consultancies, landscaping firms, clothing companies and more.

“We structured YEA! to get our youth excited about entrepreneurship and business, while exposing them to employers in the region,” said Megan Wright, program director at the Knoxville Chamber. “It’s also a great way for us to engage our members by having them come in and work with the students in an interactive manner.”

YEA! is a national initiative located in more than 130 cities across the country. It was brought to Knoxville, Tennessee by chamber President and CEO Mike Edwards, who attended the Saunders Scholars Competition, in which top YEA! students from across the U.S. compete for prizes and scholarships.

During the nine-month program, students meet weekly for three-hour sessions, in which they learn skills like developing business plans, marketing, finance and production. The sessions are divided into two segments; in the first half, students receive instructions from guest speakers and during the second, they work in a computer lab researching and composing their business plans.

“The students’ businesses really run the gamut depending on their interests,” explained Wright. “In this year’s class, we have an individual with a successful YouTube channel who started a consulting company for other YouTubers. We also have a few doing lawn care who started mowing neighbors’ lawns, and now they’re taking it to the next level.”

YEA! includes a “shark tank,” where student pitch their business plans to a panel of local investors, who judge them and hand out cash prizes ranging from $100–1000. It also features a trade show, during which students set up booths and sell their products to people from the community.

“The Academy is a great way to bring our members in to host field trips, mentor students and expose them to career opportunities,” said Wright. “That’s the biggest benefit for us; getting those students engaged and plugged in at an early stage, and getting them excited about the amazing opportunities in Knoxville.”

Looking ahead, Wright says the chamber plans to partner with other community organizations to expand the scope of the program.

“We’re looking at opportunities to engage with other groups with like-minded missions, whether that’s a shared field trip or pooling educational resources,” she said. “Our next step will be finding out how we can do it a little bigger and better moving forward.”

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Tags: Entrepreneurs

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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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