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Posted: November 22, 2009 12:30 a.m.

City council, BOC and Chamber share plans for Chamber president

The next Chamber of Commerce president should be a strong leader with experience in helping existing businesses expand and attracting new businesses.

That was the conclusion reached at a combined work session between the Covington City Council, county Board of Commissioners and members of the Chamber Executive Board.

Following the resignation of former President John Boothby in mid-September, a Chamber search committee was formed to find a replacement. The committee has also used the opportunity to see if the position’s structure can be improved.

A study of surrounding counties shows that Newton County spends significantly less per capita on economic development than successful communities.

As a result, the city and county are considering increasing their investment in economic development. The city and county spend a combined $108,000, and new proposals call for that to more than double to $240,000.

With the city and county set to vote on these increases at their first meetings in December, all parties came together Friday to discuss the future direction of the Chamber.

Chamber Chairman Joe Stier said the group needed to build a consensus on that direction and determine the level of investment needed to compete for businesses at the highest level.

Mayor Kim Carter said the city looked at alternative structures for economic development, but decided that the Chamber was the best choice because of the experience it combines with 575 member businesses.

She and Chairman Kathy Morgan said the county needs more business because the current tax base puts an unsustainable burden on residents and the county. Businesses and industries contribute more in taxes than they cost in services, while residential properties are the opposite.

Currently, industries provide only 23 percent of the tax base, but Morgan said she would like to see that number increase to around 35 to 40 percent. Before the rapid growth, the ratio was closer to 50-50.

"That is just a step away from catastrophe … if we want Newton County to just stay stable we’ve got to improve economic development and go after industry and commercial," Morgan said.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said the county needs to focus more on supporting and expanding existing businesses, because there simply aren’t many new large business opportunities available.

Stier said the Chamber exerts most of its effort on supporting existing businesses. He said that’s an important focus because small businesses employ around 85 percent of people who work in Newton County. He said member businesses are committed to economic development and contribute around $300,000 of the Chamber’s $550,000 budget.

The work session group also discussed structure, one of the most important aspects on economic development. All parties agreed that the county needs to speak with one voice, and that the next President needs to report to only one boss.

"We’re not going to attract and retain a high-quality individual if they report to multiple heads and don’t have any clear direction and clear expectations. That’s why we want them reporting to the (Chamber) board as the previous president has done," Stier said.

Commissioner Tim Fleming said it was good for the president to report to the Chamber, because politicians often have personal agendas and there is frequent turnover.

However, the city and county want more accountability and Chamber members agreed that more reporting can be done. Steir said that before Boothby’s resignation the Chamber had been working on having clearer measurements. The city and county contract with the Chamber for services, and Commissioner Mort Ewing said that pay structure could be clearer.

The group discussed an economic development steering committee, which would consist of the chairman, Covington mayor, a member of the Industrial Development Authority, a member of the Chamber Board of Directors and Newton County’s representative to the Joint Development Authority.

Chamber executive member Troy Brooks said he saw the group as an action committee - people that can make things happen quickly.

"If our economic development person gets wind of a project and they need X amount of land at X price and they want utilities the people in that group need to be able to see if they can get that," Brooks said.

Other suggestions included having a public referendum in the county to allow alcohol to be sold and having an agriculture and forestry sub committee.

City Councilman John Howard said liquor by the drink brought a good number of restaurants to Covington and could do the same for the county. Ewing said agriculture is a big business in the county and could lead to future business opportunities.

Chamber members said they are looking for a president with a lot of experience, and knowing how much the city and county are willing to contribute will allow them to start talking figures with president prospects. The county will vote on increased spending on Dec.1 and the city will vote on Dec. 7.

Howard said if the Chamber needs more money to bring in the right candidate, they should let the politicians know and those groups may consider making an even larger investment.

Morgan said that Newton County has all the assets to bring in businesses, but it needs the right leadership.

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