By Parker Hardy
Note: This is a response to a July 9 column by Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn.
Let me begin by expressing my dismay at the continued war of words fueled by “guest columns” such as Ms. Baughn’s. The practice can be divisive, driving wedges of conflict into community unity that is crucial to Oak Ridge’s future. At worst, it can be destructive, damaging the morale and reputations of volunteers, elected and appointed officials, professional staff, local organizations, and community institutions engaged in moving our city in positive directions. I am concerned that it also may discourage residential and business prospects that are considering locating in our city.
The Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce is a voice for business concerns, and it is sad that a public official thinks there’s something wrong with such a traditional role and such a fundamental right. In our almost 70 years of existence, we have built a broad membership base, most of which are small businesses. We are proud that our diverse membership ranges from local “mom-and-pop” companies, to respected professionals, to major corporations in the community and the region. In fact, if your readers will visit our online membership directory, perhaps they will recognize and support the hundreds of companies, individuals, and organizations that are investing in Oak Ridge through support for chamber initiatives. Yes, we count not-for-profits, government contractors, and out-of-town companies among our members. I believe they deserve praise, not punishment, for supporting our mission to enhance Oak Ridge’s economic vitality and business climate, and to provide business, leadership, and advocacy opportunities for our members.
If we are known by the company we keep, then I am proud when the Oak Ridge Chamber is known for the members that keep company with us.
Given that the Oak Ridge Chamber is older than the incorporated city itself, it is not surprising that we have weighed in on city revenue and spending on plenty of occasions. The yardstick on our support or opposition is not necessarily tax rates, though. The real test is whether or not new revenue is warranted for items important for a strong community—top-flight public schools, needed infrastructure improvements, and the city services that residents, consumers, and businesses expect in today’s America. This year, we are strongly encouraging the Oak Ridge City Council—after carefully reviewing the proposed budget for both economies and efficiencies to prioritize spending around three straightforward but very critical areas:
- Oak Ridge needs to develop and fund a prioritized capital improvement plan for infrastructure such as city and school buildings, streets, and utilities.
- We need to fund pay increases for Oak Ridge School teachers and staff and City of Oak Ridge employees.
- We should invest in waterfront improvements because they are important to our quality of life and because substantial state matching funds are on the table.
The chamber has encouraged our members to communicate those priorities to the City Council in order to position Oak Ridge as a community of choice for new and expanding businesses and for new residents. These are investments in our city, our citizens, and our future. After that budget review, if a tax increase is needed, then so be it. Cheaper is not always better.
Finally, I am saddened that Councilwoman Baughn still mistakenly maintains that the chamber will benefit from any tax increase. It has been made very clear on multiple occasions that city economic development funding to the chamber is transferred to a corporation that is a partnership with the city. City funds are not used for chamber operating expenses—no chamber wages or salaries, no overhead, etc. These funds only may be used for costs such as business recruiting expenses, site studies, demographic data gathering and analyses, printing or publishing, and other expenses specific to economic development functions. As the chamber’s share of that partnership, we have been providing—at chamber expense—the professional staff that leads retail and commercial recruitment and that assists existing industry with expansion opportunities. On top of that, we have provided administrative support for one of the city’s paid economic development consultants.
The City of Oak Ridge does not subsidize the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. The truth is this: Because of chamber assets assigned to economic development functions, the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce actually subsidizes the city’s economic development program, not the other way around.
Parker Hardy is president and chief executive officer of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.
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