An influential businessmen in Columbia County, a man who values civic involvement but avoids the spotlight, made a private comment that could be a political grenade this year.
Ive decided not to support anyone unless they openly advocate a fully independent chamber of commerce/industrial recruitment situation in Columbia County, he tells me.
Nothing wishy-washy there.
Now, this isnt just some anti-Augusta goober or a grumpy CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) curmudgeon. This is the owner of a multi-million-dollar business, a community leader, a civic-minded citizen with long-time knowledge of Augusta and Columbia County. He has a stake in our communitys success or failure.
What does this mans comment mean? Hes just one man, and he is hardly the first person to complain about Columbia Countys status in the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce.
Maybe so. But it puts a potentially big issue on the table in a big election year.
Bashing the Chamber became fashionable in the mid 90s after the Titleist fiasco.
For those who werent here back then - and we know, from demographic studies, that at least 20,000 Columbia County residents fit in that category - heres a thumbnail review.
Titleist was scouting a site for a new golf ball manufacturing plant. It had settled on three finalists, and Columbia County was on the list.
Snagging a new factory would be fantastic, but getting a golf-related company - complementing Club Car - would be a big feather in Columbia Countys cap.
Then we got stabbed in the back. A couple of wheeler-dealers in Richmond County twisted then-Augusta Chamber President Al Hodges arm. They persuaded Hodge to write a letter to Titleist, asking to add a Richmond County site that had been struck from the list.
The agreement with the Chambers three counties - Columbia, Richmond, Burke - was that the Chamber brought the prospect to the area, and once a site was chosen, the other two counties would back off. Hodges letter undercut that agreement, and a considerable amount of the Chambers good will.
Titleist eventually chose not to build the plant at all, so Hodges letter didnt affect the outcome. But the breach of trust earned him a slow-motion departure from Augusta. Hes now running the Chamber in Rome, Ga.
For many people involved in the Chamber, Titleist is ancient history. And even though its lessons are still relevant, it really is old news.
Executive Direc-tor Jim West brought in a former employee, Bryan Quinsey, to run Columbia Countys Chamber; Quinsey provides far more service to the downtown Chamber than did his predecessor. As a result, the perception is strong that Columbia County is spending nearly $150,000 a year in taxpayers money on a semi-private organization that exists primarily to boost Augusta. That perception isnt new, either.
What is new is that, for the first time in more than 20 years, voters this fall will elect the chairman of the Columbia County Commission. And now, at least one prominent businessman is already making it clear that the future of the Chamber itself will be an issue.
The question, then, is whether any of the candidates who run for the countys top elected government position will try to sell the idea to voters of keeping the Chamber the way it is - or whether one or more of the candidates will push for change.
When the time comes, Ill ask them all. Then, unlike my businessman friend, those candidates will be on the record. And then, also like my friend, voters will be able to decide which vision to support.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barrypaschal@ yahoo.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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