September 21, 2012 10:42:47 AM
By next month, the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link will exist only in the annals of local history, a fact which has left many to wonder what will happen to the Chamber of Commerce once the economic development portion of the Link is folded into a new tri-county regional partnership between Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties.
The short answer is: Nothing, for a while. The Chamber of Commerce, and all its initiatives, will continue to function under the leadership of Chamber Vice President Macaulay Whitaker for the next two years while a plan is created for the organization's structure, funding and future.
The long answer is a bit more complicated, with many details still undetermined.
Oktibbeha County officials are expected to sign a contract in mid-October entering into a partnership with the Link that will be identical to the agreement West Point, Clay County and the West Point-Clay County Growth Alliance signed with the Link earlier in the year.
At that point, the new entity -- the Golden Triangle Regional Development Link -- will begin its two year transition, and each city will begin defining the final shape of the individual Chambers of Commerce.
In Lowndes, the new Chamber most likely will look a great deal like the old Chamber, before it was assimilated by the Link in 2003.
At that time, the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Association (CLEDA) handled economic development, and the Chamber of Commerce ministered to the needs of small businesses. The chamber's operating budget averaged between $500,000 and $600,000 per year -- more than adequate for its needs, Link CEO Joe Higgins said Thursday afternoon at the Link office. After examining the numbers, he said he and Link Chairman Jim McAlexander believe the new chamber will be able to subsist on around $350,000 to $400,000 due to a smaller staff and other cost-savings.
Currently, 40 percent of the Link's funding is devoted to the Chamber, and Higgins said he expects the future chamber will be funded in much the same way -- primarily by allotments from Lowndes County, the City of Columbus and dues from the chamber's 500 members.
Six members of the Link board represent the Chamber, and Higgins expects those six slots will remain part of the Chamber's governance.
But though the Chamber of Commerce will look similar, its mission will be slightly different from that of Starkville and West Point, primarily because of the unique characteristics and needs of each individual city, Whitaker said.
Each will function as separate entities but will operate in cooperation with one another, occasionally working together for events like Business After Hours, which will allow for regional networking. They will also be able to give guaranteed regional exposure to their members, Whitaker said.
Things like the education committee and military affairs committee will remain an active part of the Chamber.
"Most communities, we felt like, would want to have their own identity and their own chamber," Higgins said.
Whitaker and Higgins characterized the formulation of the new Chamber as a painstaking, deliberate reorganization process which will begin June 2013 and be finalized by January 2014. From February 2014 to July 2014, they will work to secure Chamber funding.
By October 2014, the new Chamber of Commerce will be up and running and the Golden Triangle Regional Development Link will become fully-functional as the Golden Triangle Regional Development Authority.
"It will be just as detailed a plan as it is for the GTRDA," Higgins said of the Chamber transition. "The same amount of thought and care will go into the planning, the well-being and the future of the Chamber."
Though he hasn't confirmed it, Higgins is expected to become head of the GTRDA. He said once the new Chamber is free-standing, he will have no involvement in its operation or governance.
"The biggest thing will be for Lowndes County to promote what makes (it unique)," Whitaker said. "(Columbus, Starkville and West Point) are three very different communities, but that's what makes us strong. These things take time. We're residents of Lowndes County, and the success of the Chamber is important to us, because we live here."
Higgins said as the timeline unfolds, the future path of the chamber will become more clear.
"There are going to be some things we're just not able to answer right now," he said.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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