Leading a chamber is like spinning plates. On any given day, the whirling political and managerial responsibilities can be all-consuming: Prepare an agenda for next week’s board meeting; call two membership prospects, return calls to a reporter and a board member; solicit a chairman for the membership drive; book a speaker for the fast-approaching annual meeting; order new chairs for the board room. The tasks may change depending on chamber size, but the rigor required to juggle the important, the urgent, and the unimportant-but-necessary is essentially the same.
Chamber execs must master the art of time management, because all these tasks and many more are required to keep the doors open. On a good day, you get lots done and go home with a sense of accomplishment. On a bad day (or in the middle of the night), each task seems like one more layer on a suffocating pile of duties and responsibilities.
- It’s important to reflect on achievements and savor successes, but we should occasionally take a longer view of our work. I learned to appreciate this when I headed the chamber in Owensboro, Ky. We were developing a newspaper insert to celebrate a new building, and I decided to chronicle the institutions that had been created from within the chamber and that had helped shape the community. I was surprised to find a long list of established organizations, each with its own history of community impact, which had grown from seeds sown by our chamber.
- The local industrial foundation was created in the early 1960s to purchase, hold and develop land for new industries and to develop industrial parks that would be “shovel-ready.” During the ensuing years, dozens of companies took root and created thousands of jobs. The spin-off in indirect employment has been even greater.
- The convention and visitors bureau was created when the chamber championed the enactment of a bed tax to promote tourism in the 1970s.
- The RiverPark Center, a two-theatre performing arts center overlooking the beautiful Ohio River, hosts more than 250 events per year. It’s the home venue of the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra and several other arts organizations. The complex began as the chamber’s Civic Center Committee in the early 1980s.
- The International Bar-B-Q Festival was created by the chamber more than 30 years ago after an annual hydroplane race festival closed. The Bar-B-Q Festival annually attracts 100,000 people for a cooking competition. It’s the signature event defining the culture of the community and it celebrates the unique culinary heritage of its people.
- A new four-lane bridge across the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana, and its associated highway connections, were ideas incubated when an Indiana businessman was invited to make his pitch at the monthly chamber breakfast. The chamber picked up the torch on the Kentucky side of the river, and after 25 years of planning, promoting, and lobbying the state and Congress, the massive bridge was constructed, forever altering the transportation network and the prospects for commerce within the two-state region.
- The chamber’s Higher Education Committee was formed in the mid-1980s when the local newspaper publisher expressed concern that the college readiness of our high school graduates trailed state and national averages. Numerous studies and consultants and lobbying trips later, the state legislature authorized the development of a community college that now enrolls more than 4,000 students.
- Our downtown development organization, Downtown Owensboro, Inc., was created by the chamber and its former board chairman in the late 1970s following a mass exodus of downtown merchants to a new suburban mall. While the organization morphed into several different models during the ensuing years, it has had a profound impact on revitalizing the urban core.
- Leadership Owensboro is a 30-year-old idea that was inspired by the Evansville, Ind., leadership program after a local college professor and civic activist advocated that the chamber establish a local version.
- The monthly chamber breakfast (with the curious name “Rooster Booster”) was copied directly from the “Rooster Breakfast” of a local chamber in Alabama in the 1960s. It has provided a platform for guest speakers, project announcements, political speeches, policy debates and civic boosterism for more than 50 years. It routinely draws 300 attendees and is broadcast live on a local radio station.
- “The Bluegrass Music Capital of the World” grew from a conversation with a local judge who said that Owensboro had a stronger claim to bluegrass music than some of the festivals he saw on TV. After all, Bill Monroe, considered the father of bluegrass music, was born and raised in adjoining Ohio County. That conversation led to a master plan for bluegrass, an eventual “Hall of Fame” awards show, the recruitment of the International Bluegrass Music Association (which eventually outgrew Owensboro’s hotel capacity and was lured to Nashville), the creation of a Bluegrass Music Museum and an annual bluegrass music festival that showcases leading bluegrass performers.
- The Greater Owensboro Economic Development agency (formerly Industry, Inc.) was created by business leaders in the early 1980s to bolster our recruitment of new businesses. First incubated within the chamber, an autonomous development corporation was later created that has been the constant marketing arm for the business community, the city, the county, and the region.
- The local community foundation was created independently, but was quickly embraced by the chamber and given staff support and office space. After more than a decade of partnership, it routinely makes grants for educational and community improvement projects from an endowment of several million dollars.
These examples from one small city in Kentucky demonstrate the power of a chamber’s influence and its dramatic impact over time. These are institutions, not merely ideas that the chamber passively supported. Each is an accomplishment for which the chamber was a catalyst or the primary vehicle for implementation.
Would they have happened without a chamber? Maybe. But these accomplishments came about because the chamber was doing its job, looking for ways to boost civic and economic success and providing an institutional mechanism to convert the community’s best motives and altruistic energies into realities.
A chamber, like any human enterprise, will invariably have its ups and downs as leadership, talent, resources, and opportunities ebb and flow. But when viewed over decades, the work of a well-oiled chamber is conspicuous in shaping its community in profound ways.
David Adkisson, CCE, is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. He was ACCE Board Chairman in 2009-10.