Chamber: Getting a college in town is the top priority

August 16, 2004

Bulletin Staff Writer

The Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce's top priority during the next several years will be working to get a four-year college established locally, according to President Kim Adkins.

Promoting area tourism and improving the organization's image also are priorities suggested by the chamber's board of directors during a strategic planning retreat Thursday and Friday.

"Everyone present reached a consensus that those are the three most important things" for a strategic plan to focus on, said Lance Heater, the chamber's vice chairman of government affairs.

About three-fourths of the chamber's 28 directors took part in the event.

The chamber will work with state lawmakers, local officials and The Harvest Foundation to set up a local college, Adkins said. The foundation, created to invest proceeds from the sale of Memorial Hospital of Martinsville and Henry County in community projects, has offered a $50 million challenge grant to establish the school.

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine has proposed that the state establish a university in Southside. Real estate developers Bill Adkins and Earl Greene have offered 100 acres near Patrick Henry Farms subdivision east of Martinsville for its location.

A four-year college in Henry County or Martinsville would be "an economic development gold mine," Adkins said, "an engine that brings in and retains young professionals."

An influx of people attending and working at the university would generate sales in local stores and restaurants, enticing more such businesses to come to the community, she reasoned. Businesses providing support services to the college likely would open nearby, she said.

Furthermore, "industries have traditionally gravitated toward institutions of higher learning" because of training opportunities that colleges offer and the chance for employees to improve themselves through learning, Adkins said.

Also discussed during the session are plans to prepare a new tourism blueprint. The new plan would be based on one developed several years ago that has remained dormant, and the chamber would develop it in conjunction with the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.

The plan may focus on keeping tourists who visit local attractions in the area longer, Adkins said. As travelers stay longer, they would spend more money with local businesses, boosting the local economy, she said.

An idea she mentioned is establishing a NASCAR museum at the Martinsville Speedway. That would encourage fans who attend the races to linger a day or two, she indicated.

Adkins added that some folks apparently do not realize what the chamber of commerce does or who it serves, and chamber leaders want to change that.

"There is a perception that the chamber (solely) represents big business and the upper elite of the population," she said. "In reality, the chamber is made up mostly of small businesses that struggle to stay afloat every day."

The majority of the chamber's 518 member businesses have less than a dozen employees, Adkins added.

Based on information the chamber received from the Virginia Employment Commission, only about 40 percent of businesses in Martinsville and Henry County are chamber members.

"We have the ability to grow substantially," Adkins said.

The chamber must find new ways of educating non-members about the benefits of membership, including support services that help firms grow and prosper, business leader mentoring services and legislative lobbying efforts on behalf of businesses, she said.

Already, the chamber is setting up a speaker's bureau in which volunteers will be available to visit businesses, civic groups and individuals to tell them what the chamber has to offer.

"We want to be an inclusive chamber in which the entire community sees the benefit of having a chamber" and becoming a member, said David Jewell, vice chairman of membership services.

For the chamber to be able to expand its services to members, it will need money. The more members that the chamber gets, the more funds it will generate from membership dues, Adkins said.

Dues are based on the number of people employed by a member business, with the average firm paying $271 per year, she said.

Chamber board members are to vote on the strategic planning objectives at their next meeting in September. In the meantime, notes taken by facilitators at the retreat will be compiled into a report that will help board members prepare a full-fledged plan, according to Adkins and Heater.

Following the planning session, "we have a really positive focus" as to how the chamber should proceed in the future, Jewell said.


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