Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce celebrating 150 years

A Macon organization that’s been around since 1861 has been involved in many phases of the area’s growth, including attracting businesses, improving education and supporting transportation efforts.

The Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce celebrates its 150th anniversary at its annual meeting Friday. To help honor the occasion, chamber President/CEO Chip Cherry asked Joni Woolf about six months ago to write a book about its history. Woolf serves as project manager for the chamber, has been a Macon resident for almost 50 years and is the former co-owner of Macon Magazine.

The book is titled “Sesquicentennial of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce -- Celebrating the Chamber’s Contributions to the Cultural, Political, Social and Economic Life of Macon, Georgia.” It takes a look at the organization’s history by using a variety of resources, including the chamber’s archives and the Washington Memorial Library, as well as The Telegraph (which was founded in 1826).

Woolf said the book is not intended as a detailed history, but is an overview of the chamber’s history.

The $25 book will be given out to those attending the annual meeting Friday.

When the chamber was formed with 13 members in February 1861, it became known as the Board of Trade -- a name that stuck around for awhile even after it was officially changed -- but its purpose was pretty clear from the beginning even through several reorganizations. The chamber was created to help existing businesses and increase jobs, and to be part of Macon’s growth.

Through the years, the way it achieved those goals changed with the times.

In the 1800s, as railroads and river travel became a reality, the chamber looked for ways to progress from an agricultural society to more “modern” industries.

Early on, organizers didn’t want the group to get involved in politics. Leaders said that would “cause dissension and disrupt the organization.”

But during nearly every decade, the chamber tried its best to get the city and county to consolidate -- obviously to no avail, as the issue still remains a hot topic.

Among the notable projects the chamber has supported are: annexation to increase population and grow the tax base; an effort to move the state capital to Macon; the kaolin industry; construction of local hospitals; Robins Air Force Base; the Ocmulgee National Monument; conventions; resolution of downtown parking issues; the State Fair; and the creation of medical and engineering programs at Mercer University.

The accompanying timeline shows some of the chamber’s efforts during the past 150 years and some of the more prominent events, pulled from Woolf’s book and The Telegraph’s archives.

The past decade

When Cherry took over as the group’s leader in 2001, he faced a daunting task.

“It didn’t have a sharp focus, and it was in financial distress,” Cherry said. “It pretty much needed to be re-engineered -- to make us more focused and make us more effective at what we were doing.”

The chamber was “upside down financially, and we owed a bunch of people money, and we had no working capital,” he said. Staff was cut, and the chamber was reorganized to get on stronger financial footing.

It didn’t have a phone system with voice mail or an e-mail system, and the computer database was poor. So a new donated phone system was installed and computers were upgraded.

Instead of handing prospects a standard, one-size-fits-all information book, customized packages were put together for companies looking to locate here, Cherry said.

One of the most significant developments was when Georgia Power invested in having Fantus -- a worldwide site-location and consulting group -- do an executive assessment of the area, Cherry said.

The chamber used the report to “reposition our economic development and focus on target markets,” he said. One problem highlighted in that study was “one of our significant shortcomings was an ombudsman or a single point of contact” for local economic development efforts, he said.

Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission, was named to that position.

Cherry was quick to point out that many volunteer business men and women have worked with the chamber through the years to help it achieve its goals.

Charlotte McMullan was on the search committee when Cherry was chosen for his job. She became Macon’s first female certified public accountant in 1973 and was the first woman to serve on the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority when she joined in 2003.

The chamber is foremost the major catalyst for new business, she said. But the people who serve in the chamber are “also very much a part of the entire community. So they bring their knowledge from other areas, their personal expertise and their association with business, charitable organizations and other organizations that further the mission of Macon, which is to grow and bring jobs to our community.”

McMullan commends the work Cherry and Topping have brought to the chamber and to economic development of the community.

“They are great ambassadors for this community,” she said. “Chip has personally gotten people involved in the chamber that really didn’t think they were interested in it. ... He has done a great job with the chamber financially -- that was a huge job when he came here.”

Upcoming issues for the chamber, community

Looking ahead, the chamber and its partners need to be sure not to lose sight of things that are important to the entire region, Cherry said. For example, Robins is a “huge part of the economic engine to this community,” he said.

Not only would the base not be in Houston County, “but it wouldn’t have grown to what it is today if the folks in Bibb County and the city of Macon had not agreed 60-some years ago to tax themselves and buy that land down there and make that deal work ... to build that facility,” he said. “We need to pay attention to that and deal with any encroachment issues. That’s an issue that’s ongoing and an issue that’s become more pronounced, and something that’s critical to the region’s long-term work force.”

Cherry also noted that a number of jobs are going unfilled because companies can’t find people with the skills needed to get the job done, “and that puts us in an awkward position with our existing employers and helping them grow,” he said.

“We are not training our young people by giving (them) the skill sets they need to be successful in the jobs that are available,” Cherry said. “So that’s going to be a huge issue.”

Transportation also is going to be a big issue going forward, which is a regional piece that the chamber should weigh in on, he said.

Cherry said he is honored to be in charge of the 150th anniversary meeting.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate the vision and the passion and the hard work of people for over 150 years -- something that’s rare to do and we look forward to hopefully doing it justice.”

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