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Posted: May 24, 2012 9:34 p.m.

The changing roles of chambers

In July 2010, the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce revamped its mission statement and promised to take the lead on small business, economic development and tourism.

Two years later it's continued to aggressively promote efforts in three areas, raising questions about the changing roles of chambers, the difference between their private and public missions and how communities can most effectively grow.

Three-legged stool
For President Hunter Hall, having all three of those efforts under one roof is all about synergy.

"I feel it's all symbiotic," Hall said. "For example, (Tourism Director) Clara (Deemer) may be recruiting TV production that want warehouse or office space, and she can turn to (economic development recruiter) Roger (Harrison) who has databases of those properties, while I'm able to handle all of the complaints about filming that come from the community."

Hall sees himself as not only the chamber's spokesperson, but also as the sounding board and ombudsman.
When people have ideas about how to improve the chamber or community or complaints about filming inconveniences and incentive packages, Hall is the point of contact, which allows Deemer and Harrison to focus on growing tourism and industry respectively.

"With economic development, you have to have elected officials buy it and own it, because they underwrite incentives and other things. So the field is very political in nature. We have separated Roger and his recruiting effort from the lobbying and passage effort," Hall said. "We intentionally positioned the chamber president to filter and create a buffer (so the economic development leader) can focus on the recruiting and retention effort.

"It enables the economic development head to focus and be highly specialized, gives elected officials and the public one point of contact that is always here, and it puts all the targets on me, complaints, problems, opinions, ideas. I am the clearinghouse for it, and lets them not have to do it," he said. "I get lots of phone calls from Baxter; Roger and Shannon (Davis) don't need to handle them."

Hall compares the chamber's three roles to a three-legged stool, in that each operation supports the overall mission of the chamber, which is to grow and improve Newton County.

No mixing of monies
However, the chamber's organization can be confusing because the chamber receives both public and private money.

Each of tourism, economic development and small business has their own separate budgets.

Tourism is funded 100 percent by hotel/motel taxes, a special 8 percent tax charged to hotel stays which can only be used by governments on tourism activities, namely promotion of the community. The tourism budget for the current fiscal year is $202,398.

Economic development is funded almost entirely by public tax dollars, as its $241,000 budget is split 50/50 by the city and county.

Meanwhile, the traditional chamber, the small business advocate, is funded entirely by its 500-plus private member businesses.

While the economic development and tourism budgets are separate, Hall oversees both efforts as does the chamber's board of directors. In addition, Office Manager Sherry Dudley handles administration and finances for all three branches.

To help pay for those services, 5 percent of the economic development money goes to the chamber as a management fee; however, Hall, whose salary comes from the chamber said he spends the majority, around 60 percent, of his time on economic development, so the city and county are getting the vast majority of that time for free.

What works best
Tiffany Fulmer Ott, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, said cities and counties handle their economic development and tourism efforts in many different ways.

Some communities are like Newton County, where the chamber handles all three, while in other counties the individual governments handle the efforts, and still others have independent authorities that promote economic development.

"That trend changes every few years or so - you'll see many chambers have everything together then you'll see them break them up. Sometimes it has to do with having the right person over all of the parts...sometimes boards decide they want control of their own missions," Ott said. "It's really a community decision - no one way is better than the other, in my opinion...they can both work really well."

One element of economic development that is rapidly gaining importance in Newton County is workforce development, which is handled primarily by Shannon Davis. This is another area where Hall feels a chamber that handles multiple efforts is well positioned.

Workforce development depends on and affects pretty much every aspect of the community, schools, existing businesses, new businesses, government, nonprofit groups and overall quality of life and place.

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