Macon Chamber recognizes people, businesses at meeting

About 250 people attended the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce’s 148th annual meeting Friday night to celebrate the past year and to recognize people and businesses for their accomplishments.

“It is easy to lose focus on the good things that are happening here when we are all struggling to deal with the economic challenges we face,” said Mike Dyer, outgoing chairman of the chamber.

One of the most recent good things to happen here was the announcement that Korea-based Kumho Tire would build its first U.S. manufacturing plant in south Bibb County. The project captured the Deal of the Year Award from the Georgia Economic Developer Association earlier this year.

Billy Pitts, chairman of the Macon Economic Development Commission, said more than 19 different entities — local, state and federal — were involved in bringing Kumho here.

“The Kumho project is a wonderful example of our community coming together and making this project happen,” Pitts said.

Despite the failing economy, 2008 was a good year for economic development, he said. Six announcements were made representing new and expanding businesses ranging in size from five to 450 employees. More than 42 prospects visited the area scouting for new locations. And new projects generated more than $258.5 million of new investment and will create nearly 600 jobs.

A chamber initiative called Macon Now launched in 2005, which focuses on assisting new and existing businesses and enhancing the community’s image, has exceeded expectations, said Dyer, vice president and general manager of Cox Communications. Since the campaign began, more than 4,000 new jobs have been created and the total investment made is nearly $622 million.

Another part of the campaign was to improve the community’s image of itself, and earlier Friday the chamber kicked off its 2009 Macon Discovery Challenge. The challenge, which also was held last year, encourages people to form teams and decipher clues that will lead them to places around town. Teams must submit photos of their group at each location to be eligible to win a $1,000 cash grand prize.

Other initiatives the chamber is planning this year include a workshop series to help companies keep operating through a down economy and establishing a group of people to focus on meeting chamber members’ needs, said incoming chamber chairman Paul Leath with Atlanta Gas Light Co.

As always, the annual chamber meeting is an opportunity to present awards to a number of area businesses and individuals.

While the chamber traditionally presents an award to a small business, this year it will hold a separate award ceremony later this year to honor small businesses, Leath said.

The following awards were presented Friday:

Ÿ The 2009 Citizen of the Year Award was presented to Albert Billingslea, who grew up during the Depression in the Pleasant Hill community, said attorney Virgil Adams, who presented the award. Billingslea was ill and could not attend the event.

As owner of Billingslea Construction, Billingslea began as a residential builder then moved into commercial construction, and his work can be found at several churches, including St. Luke’s Baptist Church and Belleview Baptist Church.

Billingslea also founded several other companies including Ebondy Bonding Co. and a real estate firm. He also has served on the Bibb County Commission, the Macon Water Authority (and its headquarters bears his name), the planning and zoning commission and a number of other boards and authorities.

Ÿ The Existing Industry of the Year Award was presented to Panaprint, a printing company.

“(Panaprint) boost more than its bottom line, it also boosts the community by creating jobs and giving time, money and other resources,” said Kathy Bowden, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Development Authority, who presented the award.

The company has grown from five employees in 1973 to more than 100 people today, and it has invested more than $27 million in its plant and equipment, Bowden said.

Ÿ The Economic Development Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Frank Amerson, chairman of the Macon Water Authority.

Amerson played a major role working with the owners of the I-75 Business Park site to finance its purchase, the home of Sara Lee’s $23 million distribution center, architect Gene Dunwody Sr. said during the presentation.

Amerson also was involved in the joint venture agreement that led to the development of the Sofkee Industrial Park in south Bibb County, the future site of Kumho Tires.

Ÿ The Economic Development Champion Award was presented to three organizations which recognized the efforts made to transform the entrance to the Sofkee Industrial Park, which is where Kumho Tire will locate its plant. The winners are: Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns the property; the Macon Water Authority which provided the funding for the new entrance; and the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, which “provided the glue that made the concept a reality,” Pitts said.

Ÿ The Ambassador of the Year Award was presented to Montene Gates, a sales representative with Modern Woodmen of America.

“Her commitment and participation to engage new members in chamber activities and encourage existing members to stay involved has been outstanding,” said presenter Sharon Jones with Alpha Graphics.

Ÿ The Chairman’s Award was presented to Starr Purdue for her service as treasurer of the chamber from 2006 through 2008.

“Our financial structure is complicated and having a strong, competent person ... is critical to ensuring that we stay on a firm financial footing,” Dyer said.

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.