When the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce went looking for its third new CEO in six years, leaders said they were going to take a different approach: Knowledge of and commitment to Lawrence was going to take precedence over experience as a chamber or economic development executive.
With that in mind, the Chamber has turned to a longtime local business owner who has been active in community and chamber activities to take over the organization’s leadership. Larry McElwain, a former owner of Warren-McElwain Mortuary, will take the chamber’s reins on July 1.
In McElwain, the chamber has identified someone who is well connected and well respected in the community. He is a former chairman of the chamber’s board of directors and has remained active in the chamber. He knows Lawrence and its quirky personalities and loves the community. He will be, he noted, a “good, if not great, ambassador to Lawrence.” Also of note is McElwain’s ongoing friendship with Lawrence’s last long-term chamber CEO, Gary Toebben, who now is president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and may be a valuable resource for McElwain.
Certain questions about the hiring remain, mostly related to McElwain’s lack of formal economic development experience. The announcement of his hiring indicated that McElwain will lead the search, in concert with the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence-Douglas County, to fill a new position that will focus on economic development. It remains to be seen whether the local chamber/economic development budget can support three top-level executives: McElwain, the new economic development leader and Bonnie Lowe, who will continue in the relatively new position of chamber COO.
In recent years, the chamber has stumbled. It has experienced an embarrassing lack of stability in the CEO’s position and lost some credibility in the community. City government is questioning its efficacy and rightly asking for information about how certain funds are being spent.
McElwain has a big job ahead of him just in rebuilding confidence in the chamber in many quarters in the city and county.
The second major effort facing him and the chamber, and it’s even tougher, is helping to position Lawrence as an enticing and welcoming location for companies wanting to invest and expand.
Adding to our local tax base is imperative. Especially when our governmental entities seem to have an insatiable appetite for new taxes, and at a time when Lawrence already has the reputation as the most expensive city in the state, and one of the least hospitable to new development.
We wish Larry McElwain well in his new role. He should be thanked for having taken on the tasks involved. If he’s successful in changing the perception of the Chamber, and in establishing momentum for positive growth in our community, everyone will benefit.