“The chamber is made up of businesses and they know business and they will bring that to the table,” said Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley.
A county-run economic development office currently operates as a stand-alone entity. It would be more efficient and effective, however, to join forces with the chamber and its savvy private sector business leaders, according to those behind the plan.
County commissioners earlier this year expressed an interest in outsourcing the county’s economic development operations to the chamber. The county would give money to the chamber, presumably consistent with what it spends now, to carry the ball of economic development.
A task force of chamber members have met for several months to study the issue and develop a plan for what a merger with the economic development commission would look like. Chamber representatives shared their findings in a meeting with county commissioners this week.
Commissioners unanimously supported the plan in concept. The next step is to develop a detailed transition, with a target date of July 1.
“Other stakeholders will now need to be involved in the strategic planning process,” said CeCe Hipps, the president of the chamber.
Bringing economic development functions under the same roof as the chamber of commerce will result in savings of $30,000 to $50,000 in salaries, benefits, overhead and facility costs. The savings could go toward economic development initiatives like marketing and outreach in the name of recruiting businesses and growing jobs.
The county’s economic development director, Mark Clasby, said he supports the new structure if it will bring additional resources for economic development initiatives.
Clasby, 70, said he plans to continue as the economic development director but would become an employee of the chamber instead of a county employee.
Both commissioners and chamber leaders emphasized that this shift is no reflection on the job that Clasby has done over the past decade.
“This is a hard job and one person cannot do it alone,” said Hipps.
“When you have an organization with hundreds of people it provides a larger base and more resources,” agreed County Commissioner Mark Swanger.
Indeed, tapping the talent, ideas and skills of private sector business leaders through the chamber will give economic development initiatives a broader scope and bigger footprint, said Nyda Benton-Neville, a chamber board member who works for Asheville Savings Bank.
It will also be more effective by providing a one-stop shop for prospective companies.
“This is really a must for our day and age. They want to go to one web site, one source, for all the information on schools, tourism, health, our culture, housing, wages and other topics,” Benton-Neville said.
Bringing economic development under the umbrella of the chamber will “take it to the next level,” according to Laura Leatherwood, a Haywood Community College vice president. Measureable benchmarks and an accountability matrix would be built in, Leatherwood said.
A chamber task force studied the structure used by 17 other communities in the state with dual chamber-economic development bodies.
“There is no perfect model and there is no one size fits all,” said Leatherwood. “The one thing we need to do is be flexible. Haywood needs to be poised to look out for ourselves.”
A separate economic development commission board would exist apart from the chamber’s board of directors. Although it would be a subset of the chamber, the economic development board would have its own specific focus.
“The thing that generated the most discussion was the board composition. We wanted to err on the side of inclusion,” Leatherwood said.
A big board means more knowledge, more ideas and more fundraising outlets to tap.
“People who are going to make an investment want a seat at the table,” Leatherwood said.