Chamber President Katie Rennard said the organization plans a more proactive approach to its role in the community in the coming year.
The Chamber revised its business plan in November to encompass hiring a tourism director and revamping its website later this month.
It also saw a jump in membership last fall and raised funding to commence a business incubator feasibility study this spring.
“The Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce has been the voice of business for our county, striving to serve its members, focused on business, tourism, workforce education and economic stability,” Rennard said.
The Chamber’s first event in 2003 will be its 17th annual fundraising gala, “One Enchanted Evening,” on Jan. 18 at The Colonnade-Catoosa Civic Center. Departing 2002 chairwoman Martha Eaker will pass the gavel to chair-elect Scott Smith, vice president of Northwest Georgia Bank.
Outstanding small businesses in four categories will also be recognized, Rennard said.
“I think it’s going to be a real exciting year for our Chamber,” said Tommy Holcombe, 2001 Chamber chairman. “The two things I’m most excited about are the business incubator and the tourism director. We’ve been trying to get this tourism thing pushed off for close to three years now and I think we’re finally getting close to being able to make that happen.”
To commemorate the county’s 150th anniversary, Rennard said, the Chamber plans to develop a year-long events calendar, offering information about long-running county events like Ringgold’s 1890s Days and Fort Oglethorpe’s Sixth U.S. Cavalry reunion, as well as new events, such as a Chamber-sponsored fair slated for Oct. 9-13 at The Colonnade.
“By wrapping these events together and getting the calendar on tourism websites and things like that, we’ll be able to draw people, who don’t live here, in, ” she said.
Rennard, who replaced former president Lisa Wallace last June, said the Chamber continues to evolve as its base of small, entrepreneurial businesses expands.
“I guess our membership reflects the face of the community,” she said.
The Chamber now boasts 415 members after gaining 113 new members in 2002, Rennard said.
“We’ve been very fortunate, with the economy the way it’s been recently,” Holcombe said. “We’ve had a very good membership drive this year.”
Prior to his term as chairman, Holcombe met with Eaker and incoming chairman Smith to devise long-term objectives for the Chamber.
“I felt that we needed to look at more than just a one-year plan,” he said. “When I came in, we looked at the next three years to try to make sure that we were all pretty much on the same page.”
“With Tommy’s help, we were able to get the Chamber better organized and this year we’ve started some things and are looking forward to Scott carrying them forward next year,” Eaker said. “I’m excited that the chamber is bringing a lot of new people in. All in all we’ve had a good year and we’ve got a good year coming up.”
Smith said he would emphasize communication between the Chamber and government during his stint as chairman.
“We want to be a liaison so the cities and the county can use us to get feedback from businesses,” he said.
Smith said the Chamber developed a profile of each member during Eaker’s term, detailing specifics of their business to illustrate the chamber’s identity.
“When we do go talk to our local, state and federal government, we can say, ‘Here’s who we’re speaking for,’” he said. “We’re not just four people here, we’re a whole community of business leaders.
“If we have another theme to this year, we beefed up the budget to compensate for better communication to our members,” Smith said. “I think the business community plays a big part in where our county’s going to go and they need to step up to the plate and we’re going to help them do that.”
Smith credits Rennard, vice president Tammy Cole and the Chamber board of directors for building the chamber into what it is.
“I think the Chamber members have some real good representation at the board level that they can have some confidence in and our staff now is the best staff we’ve had,” he said.
‘Gateway to Georgia’is on-line, in print
In late-January, the Chamber’s revamped website will be unveiled, Rennard said.
A comprehensive site detailing all facets of Catoosa County from government and education to attractions, the site will feature links to all Chamber members who have websites and will serve to update information found in the glossy tourism magazine of the same name, Rennard said.
“Our website was state-of-the-art when we started it,” she said. “But it was not dynamic, it didn’t take you to the activity.”
Since June, the original website has received about 30,000 unique hits, Rennard said.
“Sixty-five percent of all people who travel plan their trip on the Internet and 21 percent do their hotel bookings, flights and other travel arrangements on the Internet,” she said. “So from that perspective, you need to be wired in to the right places electronically, that’s only going to grow.”
The Chamber president said she fields calls every week from people seeking demographic information about Catoosa County.
A new edition of “Gateway to Georgia” magazine will be rolled out in March for distribution regionally and at high-traffic local interest areas, Rennard said.
Tapping the tourism market
According to data released last year by the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, Catoosa County raked in $54.2 million in tourist-generated revenue in 2001 — a 4 percent increase from the county’s $52 million take in 2000.
By contrast, Dade County generated $18.1 million in tourism revenue for 2001, a 2.4 percent decrease from $18.5 million collected in 2000. Walker County fared even worse in 2001, with its tourism revenue dropping from $37.1 million to $34 million — a 7.3 percent decrease.
To enhance Catoosa County’s increasing tourist dollars, the Chamber plans to hire a tourism director in February. This person will work directly under the Chamber president and will be responsible for developing a work plan and strategy to increase tourism funding with a long-range goal of funding a convention and visitors bureau, Rennard said.
“This is a huge step towards that goal because this person will be able to staff a tourism committee, go to more of the regional tourism activities and support the cities and county in their tourism efforts,” she said. “Because tourism is such a great impact for us, the Chamber has worked to grow our membership base so that we could use the hotel-motel tax dollars and a portion of our funding from the county to fund a full-time tourism person.”
Along with Dade, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties, Catoosa County is featured in the recently-printed
“Backroads and Battlefields” brochure — a cooperative tourism effort of each county’s Chamber to draw visitors into north Georgia’s attractions, Rennard said.
“I’m 110 percent behind the Chamber and what they’re doing for the county,” said Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Judd Burkhart. “I think they’re learning how to communicate more with other people in the county. I think they’ve got some good leadership and they’re going in the right direction in getting some new leadership, too.”
Business incubator: one step closer
The Chamber, with assistance from the Catoosa Economic Development Authority, has raised the $25,000 needed to fund a feasibility study to determine if a business incubator to help fledgling businesses would be an effective tool for Catoosa County, Rennard said.
“The folks who provide these services assess the current economic situation (in the county) and audit existing programs and resources available,” she said. “They study past and current economic trends, study the existing industry infrastructure and look at all of the training and consulting resources that could be linked to an incubator.
In addition to much other research, they’ll do demand analysis studies so this will really be a thorough study.”
In the coming weeks, the business incubator committee will select a consulting firm, with the study results expected to be completed this spring, Rennard said.
“This study is the Chamber’s way of proactively trying to support business in the community and the growth of future business,” she said.
The study findings will ultimately be presented to the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners and the Catoosa Economic Development Authority