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Chamber Executive Article Archive

Lessons from Leaders: Regional Collaboration

By Several Authors

Fall 2014

If there ever was a time when a single chamber could marshal resources and tackle big community issues alone, that day has surely passed. Today in regions large and small, collaboration— productive partnerships with schools, civic organizations, elected leaders, universities, employee groups, state agencies and other business interests—is the way big things happen. Leading a collaborative effort can feel like thankless work. After all, collaboration means sharing the work and the credit, and focusing on a broader outcome. While chambers often deflect the credit to partners at home, ACCE’s recognition programs shine a spotlight on chambers and their successes.

The following case studies in community development, advocacy, and enterprise support are the result of significant regional collaboration. They are drawn from chambers who took home top honors at the 2014 ACCE Annual Convention.

Changing the Economic Tide
Putnam County (Fla.) Chamber of Commerce 
2014 Chamber of the Year, Category 1

In the midst of the recession, Putnam County, a predominantly rural area in north central Florida, was suffering from one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. With area businesses closing, unemployment rising and retail sales declining, the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce sought to reverse the trend and help strengthen the local economy.

The chamber saw an uptick in inquiries about starting a business, and lots of existing businesses approached the chamber for help on marketing strategies and funding sources. The community’s entrepreneurial drive was alive, but the chamber’s five professional staffers were not fully equipped to assist.

The solution was to establish a local Small Business Development Center (SBDC), housed at the chamber, to provide a fulltime office with certified professionals who could offer advice and training to potential entrepreneurs and existing businesses seeking assistance to recover and grow. Alignment with Florida’s SBDC Network would bring the best business assistance resources. It was up to the chamber to marshal the financial resources necessary to make it happen.

The chamber reached out to all the local government entities. The County Commission, City of Palatka Community Redevelopment Agency, and Putnam County Development Authority all contributed to the new initiative while the chamber raised private funds. The balance, roughly $50,000, was funded by state and federal grants Changing the Economic Tide Putnam County (Fla.) Chamber of Commerce 2014 Chamber of the Year, Category 1 through Florida SBDC and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

By March of 2012, the chamber and a selection committee hired a business consultant and begin publicizing the full range of services. The roll-out consisted of open house events, radio ads, social media and direct mail to invite the whole community to take part in this new, exciting resource.

Performance benchmarks including quality of client counseling, effectiveness of workshops, and number of new businesses were established to track results. So far, the program has been hugely successful, serving over 400 clients, helping retain 45 jobs while creating 40 new jobs and spurring $9.4 million in new investments. This has been done through 600+ hours of counseling and 24 workshops during the first 12 months of service.

The return on investment for the creation of the Putnam County Small Business Development Center has been tremendous. For every $1 invested, more than $4 was returned to increase the tax base of the region due to increased sales and new jobs.

The Putnam County Chamber of Commerce elevated the potential success of its service area by acting quickly in troubled times to ensure future success. By working together with the Florida SBDC and local government partners, the chamber was able to turn the corner on a growing crisis and put the community on a path toward growth.

 

Uniting Business Voices 
McLean County (Ill.) Chamber of Commerce 
2014 Chamber of the Year, Category 2

Central Illinois is home to a major research university and a diverse business base with several multinational corporate headquarters. It’s a vital driver of the state’s economy but is often politically overshadowed by Chicagoland to the north. To better represent the region’s interests in Springfield, the McLean County Chamber of Commerce joined with 16 other chambers to form the Central Illinois Regional Chamber Legislative Effort (CIRCLE).

Each year, CIRCLE conducts a member survey about issues that affect their businesses. Survey responses are then compiled and prioritized to make up CIRCLE’s advocacy objectives for each year.

Now in its fifth year, CIRCLE has become a powerful force at the statehouse. In 2013 CIRCLE joined a successful push for pension reform legislation and helped prevent a statewide minimum wage increase. With the minimum wage issue back, CIRCLE’s 2014 priorities are:

•   Continued opposition to the proposed statewide minimum wage increase

•   Oppose permanent increase of 68 percent in Illinois’ income tax rate

•   Comprehensive worker’s compensation reform

This year’s strategy included a Central Illinois Lobby Day in Springfield that featured CIRCLE-organized meetings, panel discussions with legislators, testimony from member businesses and presentations from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. In addition to advocacy efforts at the statehouse, CIRCLE also pushes information to members about legislative and policy concerns.

The capacity of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, or any other partner entities, to affect policy change is heightened by this collaborative effort. Together, members of CIRCLE are able to continue their collective commitment to enhancing economic vitality and promoting a climate conducive to capital investment and job creation.

 

Fighting for Flights 
Hilton Head Island-Bluffton (S.C.) Chamber of Commerce 
2014 Chamber of the Year, Category 3

Hilton Head Island attracts 2.4 million visitors each year who create an economic impact of $1.2 billion and support 24,000 area jobs. It is obviously a tourist-reliant region.

The foundation of Hilton Head Island’s economy was shaken in the recession as the travel market slumped and air carriers began cutting service to the Savannah/Hilton International Airport. AirTran announced that it was pulling out of the market completely. With fewer carriers and flights, accessibility dropped and ticket prices rose dramatically. In 2013 USA TODAY ranked the airport among the country’s top 10 most expensive.

With 48 percent of passengers flying into the airport headed to Hilton Head Island, the Hilton Head Island- Bluffton Chamber of Commerce recognized the need to attract additional service to secure the region’s attractiveness for business and leisure travelers. By working with the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, the Savannah Chamber of Commerce, and the Savannah Economic Development Authority, the chamber was able to compile economic and market data compelling enough to attract a new carrier, JetBlue, to enter the market.

Along with their partners, the chamber held meetings with officials from JetBlue over the course of 18 months. Data from current and past carriers, growth projections and other metrics were vital, but the entire community rallied around wooing the new airline. A community video called “JetBlue We Want You” was a highlight of the public campaign.

In 2013 JetBlue announced that it would begin two direct daily flights from New York’s JFK and Boston’s Logan to Savannah/Hilton Head. Initial demand was so high that JetBlue began scheduling larger planes before the routes opened.

Attracting JetBlue has not only replaced service lost during the recession, it also has opened additional new service and lowered overall flight costs. Delta announced in 2013 that it would begin routes to JFK to compete with JetBlue. The “walk-up” ticket price, used as an industry benchmark, has also declined 64 percent from $758 to $276.

The collaborative effort that the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce engaged in enhanced its ability to work strategically on improving tourism for the area. Advanced reservations for Hilton Head Island travel are up 16 percent over the previous year, with much credit given to the ease of travel from the two top market sources, New York City and Boston.

 

Rallying Regional Investment 
Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce 
2014 Chamber of the Year, Category 4

In November 2013, several metro chambers were asked by Ohio Governor John Kasich to identify key community projects for inclusion in Ohio’s capital budget for fiscal years 2015 and 2016. The catch: they’d have to get their projects submitted by Dec. 18.

In response, the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce reinstated its White Paper Committee, comprised of business leaders and elected officials, to solicit and identify the best projects to submit for future state funding.

With a very tight turn-around time, this group couldn’t run at typical chamber committee pace. They created an aggressive timeline with a public calendar to keep staff and volunteers on target. The first meeting took place Nov. 15 to organize the review process. That gave them just over a month to solicit input, review possible projects, select the best, get buy-in and submit a proposal by the deadline.

The chamber sent out multiple calls for action to members and the community, gathering 29 projects for review. This process was intentionally inclusive. By involving business leaders and elected officials from both parties, it was easier to get broad support for the final list of projects. More inclusion also meant a better crop of prospective projects.

In the past, many projects were rejected for state funding due to eligibility issues, so the chamber’s public Rallying Regional Investment Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce 2014 Chamber of the Year, Category 4 white paper committe affairs staff clarified the state’s evaluation process and was responsible for vetting eligibility of specific projects submitted. They hoped thorough vetting would bring a higher percentage of state funding to their region and achieve a greater number of total projects.

In the end, 14 priority projects amounting to $15 million were submitted to the state. After review, 11 of those were slated for nearly $7 million in state funding. In addition, the state reviewed arts-related projects separately, awarding $3.5 million to those in the Toledo area. With a total of $10.5 million in funding, it was more than double what the region had received in the past two capital budgets, and increased the percentage of the state’s total budget received by the area by 20 percent. This funding will leverage more than $100 million in funding for other community projects.

This enormous effort took 30 volunteers along with chamber staff and elected officials more than 400 hours to complete, all with minimal expense—only $100 was spent on lunches.

In addition to the significant impact on jobs and investment, the Toledo Regional Chamber was acknowledged in major newspapers for its leadership in the process. The commitment to collecting public and private sector input on budget projects provided an opportunity to improve the region significantly for sustained economic growth.

 

Boosting College Enrollment 
The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce 
2014 Regional Innovation Award Winner

Recognizing that 85 percent of all new jobs nationwide require some level of postsecondary education, the Greater Austin Chamber realized the key to improving Metro Austin’s economic competiveness is higher education attainment. The chamber has taken the lead in removing three obstacles to earning a college degree identified by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation:

•   If you don’t apply to college, you won’t go.

•   If you don’t have the money to pay for college, you won’t go.

•   If you’re not academically prepared for college, you won’t graduate.

In 2005, the chamber embarked on an ambitious plan to boost college enrollment of high school graduates to 20,010 by 2010, a 30 percent increase in five years. The chamber pushed 15 school districts to add one college enrollment manager at each high school, and lobbied colleges to accept a common Texas college application. ApplyTexas, a free web portal, has simplified application and enrollment processes for college counselors.

To address the financial issue, the chamber expanded and promoted the Financial Aid Saturday program, which provides free assistance to high school seniors and parents in navigating financial aid forms, and coordinated IRS and Department of Education processes to allow counselors and applicants to better track their aid status. Aid applications are up 99 percent over eight years.

To chip away at the college readiness issue, the chamber funds Partners in Education, which brings volunteers into the classroom to tutor and mentor 1,000 seniors in every high school.

Round one was so successful, the chamber has doubled down for round two. The next five-year plan aims to raise the share of local graduates who enroll in college directly after high school from 62 to 70 percent by 2015. The chamber has partnered with the University of Texas Ray Marshall Center to launch the Student Futures Project, which tracks graduates for four years after graduation to gather trends and data on employment and higher education outcomes. They will also launch a summer counseling program.

Throughout the effort, the chamber has embraced data-collection and continuous improvement principles. With student surveys, graduate tracking, and regional report cards, the chamber relies heavily on statistics and data to support and adjust its approach. The chamber also has been highly collaborative in this effort, engaging 15 school districts, 10 higher education institutions, state and federal agencies, and, of course, hundreds of business leaders.

Holistic, collaborative, multi-platform, data-intensive and business-led. A sophisticated strategy for a complex challenge that is producing real results.

 

Building an Ecosystem 
The Dallas Entrepreneur Center 
2014 Regional Innovation Award Winner

The Dallas/Fort Worth region has a strong and highly active corporate community. But historically that base hasn’t engaged with the startup community. The Dallas Entrepreneur Center wants to change that.

In collaboration with the Dallas Regional Chamber, The Dallas Entrepreneur Center (DEC) was launched in June 2013 to support the Dallas/Fort Worth entrepreneurial ecosystem, support job growth, and stimulate the regional economy. It provides a centralized location for incubation, co-working, education, training, mentoring, and access to capital. The DEC supports entrepreneurs through its incubator program by matching mentors based on skills and experience, helping students at local universities start businesses, building a community within the ecosystem, and promoting the region nationally as a hub of entrepreneurial activity.

The DEC is a collaborative environment brimming with experts and thought leaders. It was built on the belief that the strongest entrepreneurial ecosystems must be nurtured from all segments of the talent and resource spectrum. Therefore, the DEC has built unique, value-added partnerships among corporations, start-ups, investors, academic institutions and government entities.

The DEC was built on strategic regional goals embraced by the Dallas Regional Chamber: increasing job creation and capital for startups. In just one year of operation it has racked up an impressive checklist of stats:

•   5,000 entrepreneurs have attended an event at the DEC

•   200 entrepreneurs have formally applied to be in the DEC

•   150 mentors have signed up to mentor companies through the DEC

•   500 mentor hours have been devoted to helping startups in the DEC

•   five national programs have been launched through the DEC (Co Founders Lab, Tech Cocktail, Google Next, 1 Million Cups, Startup Grind)

•   $3 million in equity has been raised by DEC companies • $300,000 has been donated by corporate sponsors and the City of Dallas to launch the DEC

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