Hap Graff, president and CEO of the Independence Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday he’s retiring.

“I’ve had a wonderful run. The chamber’s in a wonderful spot,” he said.

His surprise announcement came at the end of a chamber luncheon that celebrated progress in the community, including the more than 1,000 new jobs created in the city so far this year and a reported increase the city’s median income. Also, the city’s largest private employer has added hundreds of jobs since July and is adding more.

Tom Waters, chair of the chamber board, said Graff has done a good job in his three years in his current role.

“It wasn’t an easy ride for you. I know that,” he said.

The chamber has seen some bumpy years but stability and progress more recently. Longtime President and CEO Rick Hemmingsen left abruptly at the beginning of 2012, and the chamber board spent much of that year searching for a replacement. Late that year came Franklin “Kim” Kimbrough, who championed the effort that led to the Academies at ISD program in local high schools but who also had run-ins with some and was seen as not fully supporting the chamber’s signature annual event, Santa-Cali-Gon Days. He was gone in two years.

Graff had recently retired from Blue Ridge Bank & Trust when the chamber approached him in the fall of 2014 about coming in to gain more members and straighten out finances. Graff said when he came in, the chamber had a debt of $325,000, a figure that’s down to $125,000 with a path to zero.

Graff’s announcement caught Waters off guard for a brief minute, “but,” he said, “I wanted to say immediately, well done, sir. Thank you very much.”

Graff got a standing ovation from the approximately 160 people at the luncheon.

There’s no known timeline for finding a new president.

“Quite honestly, I’ll stay for as long as it makes sense,” Graff said, adding that he’d like to stay active with a chamber in other roles.

 

Better paychecks

The chamber had several speakers from the private and public sectors give quick updates. One was Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence Council for Economic Development, who said employers in Independence have announced 1,100 new jobs so far in 2017, “which is the highest total for a single year in the last decade.”

That’s also progress toward a larger goal, raising the city’s median wage to $50,000. A few years ago it was around $44,000, but Lesnak said data reported in July put it at $48,224. That means another $94 million a year flowing through the local economy, he said.

“We’re made great progress,” Lesnak said.

Some of these new jobs are at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. Whitney Watson, manager of communications at Orbital ATK, said the company has hired 200 people since July 1 and is hiring 170 to 200 more.

“We want to continue generating good-paying jobs for this community,” he said.

He also touched on a tragedy at Lake City early this year. A worker was killed in April in an accidental explosion in the primer mixing area. The damage from that explosion also posed a threat to production and paychecks.

“We anticipated massive furloughs that could have lasted months,” Watson said. “We had no furloughs. We are back to full production.”

Other points of progress:

• A major expansion continues at Centerpoint Medical Center. On Monday, one piece of that opens. The hospital’s new “ER Fast Track” is designed to better handle to ever-rising number of emergency cases. “We’re very, very proud of that,” said Centerpoint President and CEO David Williams. There’s an open house from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

• Jim Staley, marketing and communications director for the Mid-Continent Public Library system, noted the voters’ passage of a higher library levy a year ago. That’s already meant more for the system’s collection and programming, and in January extended hours are coming. South Independence and both Blue Springs branches will have Sunday hours, and the Midwest Genealogy Center will have more weekend hours.

The centerpiece of that tax campaign was improvements to all facilities, the replacement of some and two new libraries.

“We’re going to be doing 34 building projects over the next six years,” Staley said.

Among the first: A new auditorium, open for public use, at the Genealogy Center. Among the last: A new branch in the Little Blue River valley.

• Assistant City Manager Lauren Palmer discussed the city’s “Independence For All” plan, which covers issues ranging from communications to the city’s long-term financial stability. “We have had a very successful first year under this five-year plan,” she said.

• Fire Chief John Greene – also retiring soon, also getting a standing ovation – said service calls reflect an aging population in the city. In 2012, the Fire Department got 17,000 calls, 9,000 of which were for medical reasons. Last year, it was 20,000 calls, and 12,600 were medical. “That puts a big burden on the system,” he said, “and we have to figure out how to do that.”

• Deputy Police Chief Ken Jarnagin mentioned that hotels and motels have been added to the local businesses, including convenience stores, that have to install surveillance cameras. “Video evidence is becoming such a key factor in policing and fighting crime,” he said.

• Director Kurt Graham said plans continue for a major expansion of the Truman Library. Construction work should begin in about a year, and the aim is to be done in the spring of 2020. “Right now, we’re up to our eyeballs in the design process,” Graham said.