Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Business group looks at other regional development organizations for direction

Leaders examined other regions
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
News staff writer

When Birmingham leaders began pondering a combination of key area business groups, they looked at similar efforts in Nashville and Pittsburgh for direction.

The Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Metropolitan Development Board and Region 2020 officially merged last week. The name and logo of the combined organization will be unveiled at a launch party at The Club this evening.

While today's event will be the culmination of the merger process, officials have said they are aware the hard work begins now.

Janet Miller, senior vice president of economic development at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, knows that's true.

"We did just what you guys are doing. We studied a lot of different cities to see how they structured things," she said. "It does seem like there are two models. One is to have a separate economic development organization and a chamber of commerce. We opted to go the second way, which is to have regional chamber house and staff the regional economic development initiative."

The Music City's economic development agency formed within the chamber 16 years ago, and Nashville has benefited, she said. A business community that can speak with one voice and move with unified effort are strong arguments for having a single organization, she added.

"It's easy to develop internal competition unintentionally when you have it as two separate entities," Miller said. "The worst thing in any regional program is the appearance that people aren't all pulling in the same direction."

The driving force of a main business group has to be economic development, Miller said. Otherwise, it will seem rudderless.

"If you strip out the economic development, the prosperity generation function of a chamber of commerce, it is difficult to define the purpose of a chamber of commerce," she said. "Here, at the Nashville Chamber, we are so clear that our mission is to facilitate community leadership to create prosperity. Period. End of story."

The movers behind the business group merger in Birmingham have also expressed the importance of an economic development focus. In addition to Nashville, the group looked at examples in Austin, Charlotte, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.

`Staying focused':

Pittsburgh perhaps most closely mirrors the approach Birmingham has taken.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development started coming together in 1997 and was completed about six years ago. A group of Southwest Pennsylvania CEOs heads the Allegheny Conference and pulled in several other agencies, including the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

"The idea is that we have everything in one organization," said Barbara McNees, executive vice president of public affairs with the Allegheny Conference and president of the chamber. "The leadership from the organizations felt that in order for us to successfully move the region forward, we really needed everybody to be on the same page."

McNees said it has paid off. The Allegheny Conference has been able to take on big issues in the 10-county region including government reform, home rule, government efficiency, business issues and transportation and infrastructure improvements.

She said the group carries out strategic planning every three years to keep a sharp focus. That sort of unity and focus will be important for the Birmingham group, she said.

"I think it's a matter of staying with the mission and staying focused," McNees said.

Nashville's Miller said one of the major benefits of having a unified business group is that it can command the undivided attention of business and government leaders.

"In a city like Birmingham or Nashville, it's better to keep the depth and breadth of leadership focused into one area rather than splintered among a whole bunch of organizations," she said. "I think everybody ends up feeling like they have a common vision."

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