New Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Williams only needed to hear the question once.
Meetings would come and go at Lawrence City Hall with contentious subjects ranging from development along Interstate 70 to a funding agreement for the South Lawrence Trafficway. Oftentimes opponents of the development-oriented proposals would show up at meetings to speak against the plans, but the folks who would talk your ear off in the coffee shop about Lawrence’s lack of jobs were nowhere to be heard.
Some City Hall leaders had begun to become miffed and started asking the question, sometimes with increasing bluntness.
Where’s the business community?
“I remember having commissioners and administrators look to us and say that they know there is support out there for these efforts, but where is everybody?” said Williams, who took over as the chamber’s president and CEO in May. “It did not take me long to accept that we are obligated, not just expected, but obligated to be there to encourage the community to make common sense decisions on growth and development matters.”
So, one of Williams’ first initiatives at the Chamber was to form a new invitation-only committee called the Chamber’s Voice of Business Committee. The group now has 50 active members. Williams is confident that from that group of 50 he can pull together at a moment’s notice a pool of a dozen business advocates to attend and speak at any city commission, county commission or school board meeting that has an economic development-related issue.
The new group is one sign of change at the Lawrence Chamber, which is on its fourth president since 2000. But other signs may be on the way.
Williams confirmed that in the coming days and week’s he’ll ask the chamber’s board to approve what would likely be a million-dollar-plus campaign to raise private funds to help with economic development efforts.
“Our private sector financial support is frankly not where I believe it needs to be,” Williams said. “We have tremendous public sector support for economic development. But excellent economic development organizations require support from the private sector.”
About 40 members holding leadership positions in the chamber gathered for a two-day retreat last week, and Williams — who was interviewed before the retreat — said he hopes the chamber will emerge with three to four firm goals to work on for 2013.
A plan to start a fundraising campaign in 2013 — which likely would seek pledges over a multiyear period — could be one of the larger initiatives. Williams said a private consulting firm likely would be enlisted to help determine how large of a campaign would be appropriate.
Williams said any campaign would be accompanied by a “full prospectus” that would show donors exactly how the money would be spent. He said any plan likely would include strategies in multiple areas such as business retention and expansion, national business development, workforce development and other areas.
Williams helped lead two five-year capital campaigns while he was the senior vice president of economic development for the Springfield, Mo. Area Chamber of Commerce from 1995 to 2010.
He said he’s confident there will be plenty of willing supporters of a campaign, but he’s not sure the Chamber has done enough in the past to reach out to them with a specific plan.
“What I have observed and what has been conveyed to me by leaders of the business community is there is a silent majority of unbelievably strong support for our plans to raise the bar on job creation,” Williams said. “There is a very vocal minority of individuals, good people in this community, who don’t necessarily and won’t necessarily agree with our approach.”
Williams said he won’t purse a “growth for growth’s sake” strategy at the chamber. But he said Lawrence’s job creation goals need to include but go beyond attracting the popular high-tech and bioscience jobs that many communities are clamoring to attract.
“There is no such thing as low-tech or no-tech jobs out there,” Williams said. “Manufacturing as an industry offers some of the most attractive wage rates in America.”
Williams said he’ll work to sell the Chamber’s strategies to the broader community, but he said he won’t try to gain unanimity before moving forward with initiatives.
“There will never be a level of disrespect,” Williams said. “I won’t tolerate for one moment discourteous or rude interaction with those who don’t agree with what we are doing. But I will say I’m absolutely fine on agreeing to disagree. We can disagree agreeably.”