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What would our community be missing if we didn't have a Chamber of Commerce?
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In the middle part of the 20th century some of the business and community leaders came together to form the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce. The purpose of the chamber is to bring the business and professional community together to work for the common good of our area. Through the Chamber there is a unified voice to address the concerns of the economic community.

The Chamber’s membership is made up of small, mid-size, and large businesses. Most are headquartered here in our county while some, though headquartered elsewhere, do a substantial amount of business in our community. Currently the membership stands at 510 members. Twelve were added during the month of April.

Another service of the Chamber is to help the various members to learn from each other as well as offer support to each other when needed. This need is particularly seen in the area of small businesses. Marketing is often a great need for a small business. The local Chamber is offering a program to help in this area.

The Chamber also sponsors a ribbon cutting as a new business is getting up and running. I recently attended one at the Bread and Butter Bakery on the corner of Monticello and Reynolds. Leaders from the Chamber, the Main Street project and the City were present. What a great way to encourage those opening a business with such great the community support. This past Thursday a ribbon cutting was held for the Mystic Grill.

The Chamber seeks to educate the community on the values of a strong business presence. It seeks to be the voice and advocate for the business community. This is for both members and non-members alike. The Chamber wants to show its value to their clients and to potential clients.

At the annual meeting of the Chamber this past winter a new President was named to be the Chief Executive Officer for the Covington Newton County Chamber. Ralph Staffins returned home after fifteen years to head up the Chamber. He came to Covington after leading the chamber in McDuffie County. Before that he was with the Chamber in Wilkinson County. He replaced Hunter Hall, who had led the local chamber since 2010.

Ralph is a graduate from the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. His undergraduate major was in local government and his Master’s in Public Administration. While doing an internship at Wilkinson County he discovered his passion for economic development which he has brought to his work with the Chamber. All three Chambers, he has been a part of, brings together the work of the Chamber and Economic Development.

While in college he met his wife, Rachel. The have been married for seven years and have two daughters, Evelyn Kate who is three and Katherine Anne who is one years of age. They were very active in their last community in Thomson and are already getting involved in Covington.

One of the new programs the Chamber has started this year is a networking for those under forty years of age. They are the Young Professionals of Newton County. This is to build community among these young leaders.

Another new program will be a monthly column in the Covington News called ON THE CLOCK. Ralph will take you inside a business and tell how it goes about its business. This behind the scenes look will help us understand what our neighbors do in their “work worlds.” It will be a “hands on” experience. The first column featured the Covington Flower Shop.

The Chamber offers a variety of programs to help “networking” in the local business community. Among these is “Lunch Link” which on a monthly basis seeks to help the small business with development. “Chamber 101” is to inform new and prospective members about what the Chamber is about. There was also the Chamber’s Annual Golf Tournament recently held at the Ashton Hills Golf Course. One other program is “Coffee Calls” at various business. Staffins said this is the local concept of “After Hours” but just held much earlier to bring the business community together.

When asked what the greatest strengths of our community are in his opinion, he said first it was the people. He has been reminded of this strength as many have welcomed him and his family to Covington. He said we are blessed with genuine and good hearted people. Newton County has a great work force to provide for economic growth. Besides people, he pointed out the plusses of transportation. We are located near the world’s busiest airport without the hectic pace of living. Also our area straddles a part of the Interstate system.

When asked what the greatest challenge facing our community in his opinion. He said it was how to deal with the growth that continues to come. He commented in the fifteen years he was away, the county has grown from a population near 60,000 to more than 105,000 today. The challenge with growth is what kind of community we will become. He pointed to the need to see what is coming and to make sure that the change leads to a quality that we will be proud to pass on to our children. To grow and yet still allow us to feel at home.

B. Wiley Stephens is a retired United Methodist Minister and author who now resides in Covington