Monday mornings Cham-ber of Commerce breakfast with Columbia Coun-ty lawmakers was like other such annual events, offering a glimpse at the legislative future that awaits in Atlanta with the 2003 session.
The usual things - budgets, water, government - got the usual sort of answers, best described by state Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, who quoted Yogi Berra: The hardest thing to predict is the future.
But it is the future of the Chamber itself that these days is hard to predict. Such events as the Pre-Legislative Breakfast, says outgoing Columbia County Chamber Board Chairman Brett McGuire, should pack the room; instead, just a handful of business leaders attend.
Participation is the key to building a Chamber, and thats where an exciting initiative should pay off.
It was just a few months ago that McGuire, working with other visionaries, incorporated the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. Prior to that effort, the Chamber was simply an offshoot of the Metro Augusta Chamber. Many in Columbia County have long felt that the county was stuck playing second fiddle to Augustas dominant role in the Metro Chamber.
Former Metro Chamber Executive Director Jim West was supposed to change that perception. Instead, he worsened it - perhaps inadvertently - by hiring a former subordinate as Columbia Countys Chamber director. Bryan Quinsey then split his time serving Columbia Countys Chamber and Development Authority, while also working as Metros interim economic development director.
It wasnt just the fragmented duties that caused problems with Quinsey; the realization that he worked at the pleasure of the Metro Chamber rankled many in Colum-bia County who felt the community deserved to hire its own leader.
Thats about to happen. Incorporating the Columbia County Chamber as a separate, but cooperative, entity outside the Metro Chamber is the first step; the next is for Columbia Countys Chamber to hire its own executive director. Quinsey will be the Columbia County Development Authoritys economic development director, while Augusta will hire its own.
After everything shakes out over the next few weeks, what will this all mean?
First and foremost, Columbia County will formally have a real Chamber. The Chamber has not fulfilled the traditional role of a chamber of commerce, says McGuire, who expects that to change - even as the relationship with the Metro Chamber is retooled.
The two Chambers will still cooperate; no one expects an us-vs.-them approach when Columbia County takes a bigger seat at the table. But the change will correct past slights - real or perceived.
Weve overlooked some responsibilities, admits Ed Presnell, the executive director of the Metro Augusta Chamber. We didnt do justice to the opportunity. ... The right focus wasnt given to the Columbia County chamber.
That should change now, but theres still one more piece of the puzzle: membership. Under the financial plan designed by the Chamber, membership in Columbia Countys Chamber must at least double. Presnell rightly points out that those favoring a split in the Chamber have always said more business would come on board if only there was greater autonomy.
Now is the time, then, for those people who have called for such a change, or grumbled about the lack of one, to come forward. If Columbia County is to get the Chamber it needs, businesses must now meet this exciting challenge. Otherwise, theyll continue to get exactly the Chamber they deserve.
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