Having just completed a record-breaking year in recruitment, the organization hosted its 88th annual meeting at the Omega Center International — a new venue for the event made necessary by the influx of new members.
Steve Robinson of Cleveland Plywood, who served as chairman last year, said holding the position was “the honor of my life.”
“I feel like I gained more from this opportunity than I gave,” Robinson said.
He noted it had been a year of growth for both the Chamber and the community.
The former chairman noted several statistics that reflected the Chamber’s involvement in the community and realized successes.
Robinson listed among other achievements a successful job shadowing program, sold-out seminars, 160 participants in the safety council’s second year of existence, the opening of the Hiwassee River Heritage Center, the highest growth rate of tourism in the state, the highest job growth in the state and beginning the master plan for the Spring Branch Industrial Park.
He also noted a number of the Chamber’s staff are serving on regional and statewide committees and organizations.
“I think it’s important they are recognized by their peers and have the respect of their peers as they go out to represent us as a group of business members,” Robinson said.
He said the business community, through its investment in the Chamber, “gives back to every citizen who lives in our area.”
Robinson said when he accepted the chairman’s post, he wanted to focus on recognition, united strength and expansion.
“Our member list represents 9,600 member years,” he said. “That’s how long they have believed in this Chamber and have believed in this community.”
He said the organization now speaks with the voice of 1,255 members.
“When we go out to compete for an industry or expand an industry, our voice is strong and that is fantastic for our community. It makes a difference how people look at us,” Robinson said. “Stay with us, because it’s definitely worth it.”
Robinson passed the chairman’s gavel to Debbie Melton of Don Ledford Automotive Center.
“[Serving as chairman] is in a sense my way of paying back the investment this Chamber has made in me and our business over the last five years,” Melton said.
She also had high praise for the work and dedication of the organization’s staff members.
“We are blessed with a tremendous Chamber staff,” she said. “They have developed a close bond with our members and our government leaders. This level of communication and cooperation is imperative to keeping the wheels of economic development in our community running.”
Melton recalled the travails of her business when GM wanted to pull from the local market.
She called her story a commercial for what investing in the Chamber has meant to her and what it makes available to businesses.
Melton said when GM began pulling franchises from local markets “our company became a victim.
“We were left with few options and left with the realization that the business our family began in 1981 would have to close its doors,” Melton said.
She said the loss of those auto makes left the market without four of the automobile industry’s major brands.
“I reached out to the Chamber and city and state officials. They gave us endless support,” Melton said. “The community began writing letters to GM — sending emails, signing petitions and even creating YouTube video messages.”
She said the Chamber helped to fight for the dealership and provided important research information to demonstrate the area’s growth and why it is important for GM to have its brands represented here.
“We were reinstated with Buick, GM and Cadillac in 2010 and then in June of 2012 we earned the Chevrolet brand,” she said.
“Our business is just one example of the job retentions in our community in the last few years,” Melton said.
She pointed to expansions of Whirlpool, Mars Chocolate, Duracell, Olin and Merck as examples of where new jobs have been added.
“Whether it’s a major manufacturer or a Main-Street-owned business, the Chamber is always here for us,” Melton said.
She said Cleveland is “truly blessed” to have maintained businesses and brought in new ones to keep jobs and products plentiful.
“We are a blessed community filled with spirit and commitment to the future,” Rowland said. “There’s no better example of that spirit than within our Chamber membership.”