Throughout the years, the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce has been a valuable asset to the community, supporting local businesses and promoting new business development in our city. For more than 20 years, the city of Oak Ridge and the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce have had an agreement through which the Chamber works in partnership with the city to attract new business to the community.
Appropriately, during these challenging economic times, the city is looking at all of its economic development relationships and asking itself whether or not it’s a good investment. We recognize the city’s efforts to conserve public dollars and have made a proposal to City Council for the formation of a better and less expensive partnership for the future.
It is disappointing that several inaccuracies have been posted in various media outlets from one member of council. We certainly respect and appreciate knowing where Councilwoman Trina Baughn stands on the issue of business development. But it is important that the community recognizes what the Chamber and the city have accomplished together over the years and how the Chamber’s proposal will result in additional positive changes in how economic development can occur going forward.
In order to do so, it’s important to understand the Chamber’s history and how our operations are funded. The Chamber was established in 1950, some nine years prior to Oak Ridge’s incorporation. The Chamber is funded primarily by private companies’ financial support that comes in the form of membership dues or investments, millennium partnerships, sponsorships, and other non-public funding sources. Our members see their membership as an investment in the business community.
Throughout the years, the Chamber has worked on attracting and developing new businesses for Oak Ridge, as well as helping existing businesses to expand. We also have pursued other common goals such as workforce development, housing, quality of life, and advocacy efforts—all supported by our members and their volunteer efforts. These members are represented by the Chamber’s board of directors, who are volunteers from the businesses community.
Throughout the Chamber’s history, many successes can be attributed to the staff and volunteer efforts of numerous people. Most recently, our supporting Oak Ridge Economic Partnership assisted with Protomet’s expansion. The Industrial Development Board structured an appropriate financial package. The Chamber’s board of directors then endorsed Protomet’s expansion plans, advocating and supporting it at the April meeting of City Council.
That work continues. Hibbett’s Sports, the New China Palace, and Appalachian Underwriters are other projects that the Chamber and the city have partnered on during recent years. In fact, over the last 10 years, we have provided either direct or indirect assistance to businesses that yielded a capital investment of some $486 million and about 5,000 jobs in Oak Ridge. Most recently, the Chamber and many others, such as the city, have been working with Kroger Marketplace and Crosland Southeast (the Oak Ridge Mall) on their respective projects.
Woodland Town Center was another fine example of working together for the benefit of the community. Because the city, the Industrial Development Board and the Chamber worked together, we now have a larger Panera Bread and an Aubrey’s offering new dining venues in our community.
Does the Chamber take sole responsibility for these positive changes? Of course not. Anyone who has ever been part of opening or expanding a business knows that it takes many cooperative organizations to ultimately reach success. However, in each of these examples the Chamber did play a key role. Sometimes we provided information that assisted in the decision for the business to locate or expand here, sometimes we mounted advocacy efforts on the business’s behalf, and sometimes we facilitated discussions among key allied organizations or individuals.
Unfortunately, there also has been a lot of misinformation reported about the Chamber’s building. Here are the facts: the Chamber, as an independent private organization, owns the building we reside in. We in turn lease the land under the building from the City of Oak Ridge. The original lease was negotiated and signed in the 1960s and has been renewed and amended several times since then. The lease contains a clause through which our lease rate is adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index. While the Chamber does certainly benefit from certain favorable terms of the lease, it is important to note that the building will become the city’s should the lease not be renewed.
As for the Chamber’s economic development proposal, we are proposing to continue partnering in economic development for the betterment of our community and its businesses. The proposal, which has been submitted to Council, better defines roles and how the partnership that would be formed going forward. A “steering committee” would be formed consisting of two Chamber representatives, the city manager, and a member of City Council. This Committee would decide how to best carry out economic development strategies and target businesses and industries for the community. All of the city funds that are contributed as part of this agreement would be matched by the Chamber. The Chamber resources will provide the labor from the Chamber staff as well as the other “soft costs.” The city’s funds would be used exclusively for market studies, travel and other “hard costs” as the committee approves. Both the city and the Chamber would provide as-needed resources such as technical assistance in order to further economic development.
In order words, the city leadership and Chamber’s leadership, which consists of private businesses in the community, would work together to prioritize and lead the business development activities for our community. While there are too many details to try and explain in this short column, it is important to note that the Chamber’s proposal does not include any city funding to subsidize our day-to-day operations. In fact, we believe that through this proposal the Chamber and the private business community can emerge stronger and more focused on creating and retaining businesses and jobs in Oak Ridge. To us, this is the definition of a true public/private partnership. Hopefully, this further explanation will help eliminate any confusion that has resulted from recent media releases.
For 24 years, the city and Chamber have worked together on business development activities for our community. It is our sincere hope that this relationship will continue in the future because the Chamber believes this ongoing partnership is in the best interest of our city. We look forward to working with the City Council members to answer any additional questions or concerns they may have and to a successful continued partnership going forward.
Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce
Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce