Historically, the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce has played a key role in the business and civic life of Lawrence, but it is hard to maintain that position in the community without stable leadership.
Tom Kern announced his resignation last week to take a job as chamber CEO in Steamboat Springs, Colo. He was the third CEO hired by the Lawrence chamber since the departure of Gary Toebben in 1999.
Toebben’s 18-year tenure in Lawrence was unusually long in chamber circles, but having three different CEO’s in the last 12 years hasn’t been a plus for the Lawrence Chamber. No matter how qualified or skilled the people in that office are, it takes a while to get to know Lawrence and understand the community, and it’s difficult to undertake any significant initiatives before building rapport and confidence in the community.
It’s hard for the chamber to be a “player” in Lawrence when the organization’s key leadership face keeps changing.
Although the role of the Lawrence Chamber has changed somewhat in recent years, it still is a primary leader for economic development efforts in the city and county. City Commissioner Mike Dever is right when he says, “We don’t have any time to lose. We don’t have any extra breathing room on our economic development efforts.”
Many factors, not the least of which is the sagging state and national economy, have contributed to a period of slow economic growth in Lawrence for the last several years. The city is losing retail dollars to other communities and has struggled to compete with other nearby cities to attract major new employers.
If the Lawrence Chamber wants to remain at the forefront of these efforts, it needs to find a new CEO who, as Dever said, “is going to be ready to run right out of the gates.” Dever also noted that person needs to be “somebody who understands the way our community operates both politically and technically.” That suggests that an existing connection to Lawrence might be a more important qualification for the job than extensive chamber of commerce experience.
The city already has deemed it necessary to create its own position to guide Lawrence’s economic development efforts. Without some strong, hopefully stable, new leadership, the chamber is in danger of becoming increasingly marginalized as a component of the city’s economic development team.
We wish Kern well as he heads to his new job in Colorado, and we wish the volunteer leaders in the Lawrence Chamber well as they prepare to hire a new CEO. They, more than anyone, would like to find a new CEO who will be a positive and dynamic leader for the chamber for many years to come. We hope they are successful in their search.