“If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu!” I have no idea who made this observation, but it is a statement that I have taken to heart in my career as a chamber professional and in economic development. As a chamber professional, your businesses and communities are always at the forefront of your thoughts and schedule. Often, economic development is not always forefront in your thoughts; if it is, knowing what to do, how to do it, and when to do it can be overwhelming!
There was a time when chambers of commerce included economic development in their programs of work, but then a gradual shift took place. Economic development was often pulled from being a chamber role and instead established itself as a separate organization. Chambers were often stiff-armed and were told that economic development was no longer their responsibility; they were told to concentrate on ribbon cutting, retail, and retention (or some variation, anything but economic development). Chambers were told to leave job creation to the economic development organizations. How did many local chambers respond? They rolled with it, played along, and focused on other objectives to better their communities. But then chambers slowly began to ask why their integral roles and expertise in the business community was all of a sudden deemed less-than-relevant.
Economic development strategies and programs of work are vital to every community that wants to compete and expand. And this holds true whether the local chamber is the “belly button” for economic development or not. Your chamber undoubtedly has a place at the economic development table. Your chambers are absolutely relevant to every economic development discussion.
So how are you engaged in economic development? I’ve found that some chambers believe that economic development is too complicated; they have an outdated perception of economic development, or have been convinced by some self-professed leader that “it’s none of your business.” Well, it is your business because your entire reason for existing IS business! Unfortunately, perception can become reality, and a misperception can drive away chambers from participating in economic development. Many people view economic development as an expensive process that involves buying large chunks of land, taking big trips, and spending bushels of money to recruit a “big fish.” Some of that exists, but these are small elements of an overall economic development strategy–a strategy that includes efforts to promote business retention, entrepreneurism, economic gardening, and marketing. I know that your cursory review of that list leads you to excitedly conclude, “These are my chamber’s strengths!”
How can chambers get a seat at the economic development tables in their communities, towns, cities, counties, regions, or states? Here are a few brief ideas to get you rolling.
Be prepared to assertively insert your chamber into economic development. Do not let your chamber get pushed so far out of the economic development community that your chamber is perceived as simply a “social” or “ribbon-cutting” or “events-only” organization. Get exposed and lend your chamber’s expertise!
As soon as you finish reading this article, set up a meeting with the point person for the local economic development organization to communicate that you want to lend your expertise and network to be a vital member of the economic development team. Build a vision that makes everyone better “together.”
Of course, you and your leadership must be educated to speak the language of economic development, understand the issues, have an idea of the tools available, and understand the contributions that you can make. Every state has an Economic Development Association. In Virginia it is known as VEDA, aka Virginia Economic Development Association; in Arkansas it’s called AED, aka Arkansas Economic Developers; and in Nebraska it is called NEDA, aka Nebraska Economic Developers Association. Find your state’s economic developers group, join it, and get involved—you need a seat at the table to make a difference. Also, you can attend an orientation briefing or training session produced by your State Department of Economic Development followed up with a courtesy visit to your state’s Director of Economic Development. Then attend a regional BEDC–Basic Economic Development Course–which is normally a week-long course and is a great investment in your professional development. It should give you a solid foundation in understanding economic development. This foundation can help you identify where your organization’s strengths lie. To find a BEDC near you, visit iedconline.org.
A sharp tool is a relevant tool, and every chamber should have economic development tools in their toolboxes. Once you’ve been exposed to some of the organizations listed above and educated yourself and your organization’s leaders, the curtains will open and you’ll see all of the economic development opportunities that exist for your chamber. You will then incorporate economic development strategies into your program of work, which increases your relevancy and impact to the communities that you love. You will find your a seat at the table and will no longer be on the menu.