It is a time of continuing change for the Independence Chamber of Commerce, says the business group’s president and CEO.
Franklin “Kim” Kimbrough came on board a year ago this month, with promises to listen closely to community concerns and with direction from his bosses – the chamber board – to move in some new directions.
The focus, he said, is to help members – with a particular focus on small business – and speak out forcefully on public policy issues from Medicaid to schools. Chamber membership and involvement are up, and he said the group has to focus on delivering value for each member’s dollar with services that can include co-op marketing, training and networking.
“And value has to be defined the way the members define it, and that’s going to change from business to business, from industry to industry, and really city to city,” Kimbrough said.
The chamber has revamped its structure to involve more members, and it has reviewed programs while lauching new ones such as Tech Connect Tuesdays that Kimbrough said are well attended, helping small-business owners keep up on training. Everything the chamber has undertaken over the last year, he said, is either a new program or laying the foundation for additional services to come.
“But it means in some instances there are things we’re going to do differently,” he said.
The chamber’s signature event for many in the community, the Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival every Labor Day weekend, also is undergoing close review. It has not consistently been profitable for several years, he said.
“The goal now has been to get Santa-Cali-Gon stable financially. ... And we’re on the way,” he said.
Chamber membership last December was 599, and the goal was to raise it by 100 in a year, he said. It was at 661 as of last month, and Kimbrough said he didn’t think the chamber would quite make 100 by this December, “but I think it will be close.”
More importantly, he said, more than 150 member businesses are participating in one or more of the chamber’s five committees and 12 subcommittees. That means many people in regular contact with the group.
“Participation of stakeholders is a sign of a growing, healthy chamber these days,” Kimbrough said.
The chamber also went through extensive staff turnover in Kimbrough’s first few months, and those times were tough, he said, but the staff – smaller than before – is filled now, and he said things are good on that front.
“We have fewer folks, but we have more volunteers,” he said.
Kimbrough said the chamber is working well with the Independence Council for Economic Development and said it is reaching out to other chambers so Eastern Jackson County can have more of a unified voice on public-policy issues, something that traditionally has been a challenge in Jefferson City when it comes to advancing Kansas City area causes.
“We’ve really got to be proactive on a lot of these issues,” he said.
Like chambers of commerce in the other larger cities across the state, the chamber this year came out in favor of expanding Missouri’s Medicaid program, with heavy incentives from Washington, D.C. It’s one way, under the Affordable Care Act, to extend health coverage to millions nationwide.
Gov. Jay Nixon backed the expansion, but legislators said no. The issue is expected to be debated again in 2014. To the chamber, the issue is jobs retention – potentially hundreds of jobs in Independence alone, Kimbrough said. Without the expansion, proponents have argued, hospitals will be hammered financially because of other aspects of the ACA.
That will be one of several issues the chamber plans to press.
“We’re going to be much more active in this next year,” Kimbrough said.
Medicaid and transportation issues figure in that prominently, “but the absolute number one is protecting the quality of education in this community,” Kimbrough said.
The Kansas City School District remains unaccredited, and under state law students there could begin transferring to neighboring districts, though that’s on hold while a court case is resolved in the coming weeks. Massive transfers, officials fear, could overwhelm suburban schools, and state legislators will be pressed to come up with an equitable alternative.
Significant damage to local schools, Kimbrough said, would have “catastrophic” effects on the business community, affecting investment and jobs.
“That’s a generational thing,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to fix it in a year or two.”