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Valdosta leader encourages Effingham Chamber
05.11 myrna ballard
Myrna Ballard, president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, advised Effingham Chamber members to continue to help small businesses. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

Myrna Ballard had some words of encouragement for the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce in its quest to foster small businesses.

“You guys are making all the right moves and you need to keep doing what you are doing,” she said.

Ballard is the president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, and the Effingham Chamber has modeled its small business outreach after what that group has put in place the last few years.

The Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber opted to get into the world of what is being called economic gardening in order to expand the services it offered small businesses. That Chamber has a membership of 1,540, and Ballard estimated that 80 percent of their members employ 20 or fewer people.

The area’s manufacturing sector suffered a significant employment drop, falling from 6,500 to 5,200 workers. Valdosta and Lowndes lost 1,200 workers in the apparel industry alone.

“So we knew we had an issue,” Ballard said. “We knew we had to do something.”

Chamber leaders also recognized that industries could do more with fewer workers as technology improved. While the number of jobs available decreased, that meant a more skilled workforce was needed.

“Now, they are better jobs,” Ballard said.

She also said that while the North American Free Trade Agreement had some debilitating effects in the short-term — the loss and transfer of jobs outside the U.S. — it has had positive impacts.

“We have grown 8,500 jobs a year, and they are good jobs,” Ballard said.

When the Effingham Chamber started its entrepreneurial friendly task force, Freddy Long, Talbert Edenfield, Scott Hinson and Ken Stoner called upon the Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber, and a committee of 20 people worked on the entrepreneurial friendly designation.

“That committee worked tirelessly,” Long said.

One of their tasks resulted in a 53-page book for people wanting to start their own business.

“There was no information on how to get a business started in Effingham County,” Long said.

The task force also found out there were 1,800 businesses in Effingham County, and small businesses make up 90 percent of that total.

Long also acknowledged that the reeling economy has affected the way businesses approach their matters.

“Now, we’ve got to work a little bit harder,” he said. “The Chamber is helping out with that.”

The Effingham Chamber has begun its own small business resource center with demographic and marketing data and one-on-one counseling.

It is also starting a leads group of representatives of different business areas for potential sales leads and a roundtable of business people from several different pursuits to act as a “miniature board of directors,” Long said, to bounce ideas off. The Chamber also has Small Biz U courses available on its Web site.

Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber officials discovered that their five areas in their peer group — including Athens and Rome — were in the top 25 of Georgia’s 159 counties for average weekly wages. The average weekly wages in Valdosta and Lowndes County had fallen from 59th to 103rd. They are now 93rd.

To stem the outgoing tide of post-secondary school graduates and to correct the average weekly wage trend, the Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber began its entrepreneur development program in earnest in 2004. Chamber officials looked at what was being done in Littleton, Colo., the birthplace of “economic gardening.” Economic gardening means growing jobs through start-up businesses rather than going and hunting, or recruiting, other businesses to move in.

“Economic development is a very different animal from industrial recruitment,” said Ballard, whose background is in industrial recruiting. “With economic development, the better each of us does, the better it is for all of us throughout Georgia.”

There are four big-picture items to continue the entrepreneur friendly campaign, Ballard said — ensuring a skilled workforce, reform health care, promote innovation and limit the burdensome regulations on tax laws.

Chamber leaders were putting resources into helping business grow, but “we weren’t putting a penny into jobs” for graduates of Valdosta State University or Valdosta Technical College,” Ballard said. “Many of them have to go elsewhere to find a job. We want to grow jobs for our college graduates.”

To that end, the Chamber has set a target of 1,000 new jobs in information technology, environmental technology and medical service and support over the next five years. It also will start entrepreneur program for the schools and will work with VSU, VTC and the Valdosta and Lowndes school systems to make sure graduates are ready for work.

The Valdosta Chamber also asked each of its business members what the No. 1 concern is and their response was health care and the cost of health insurance, according to Ballard.

“We need to pursue health association plans,” she said.

The Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber has partnered with Guardian Bank for a $15,000 top prize for the best business plan. The prize winner has to open the business in Lowndes County and must employ VTC or VSU graduates.