HOPE — Ten years ago, the Hope Area Chamber of Commerce had more than 60 members and had approved an ambitious strategic plan to increase economic development, housing and tourism.

“I think you’ll see some big things happen,” former chamber president Gary Miller told the Hope Town Council in March 2006.

Miller was correct. But one of those “big things” wasn’t what people in Hope expected.

Five months ago, the remaining chamber members planned to meet one final time to formally disband the organization, new town manager J.T. Doane said.

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A few weeks into his new job, Doane strongly urged the board of directors not to throw in the towel, which prompted departing members to make the new town manager chamber president.

As a former member of the Hendricks County Chamber of Commerce, Doane accepted the challenge and decided to rebuild the Hope organization one small step at a time with the goal of making it viable again in 2017, he said.

During last Tuesday’s meeting of what’s being called the Hope Town Chamber of Commerce, the new board was still in organizational mode.

Along with vice president Jake Miller and board member Ohmer Miller, Doane kept to the basics in discussing such matters as a chamber phone number, meeting locations and membership fees during the meeting.

But after completing their agenda, board members took time with the 14 people who attended to discuss past problems — and how the new chamber board intends to proceed.

When rehashing phases of the town’s 2006 strategic plan, Jake Miller said plans for economic development and new housing designed to create more in-town jobs were viewed negatively by a constituency that feared growth would threaten Hope’s small-town character.

“There was a difference between people wanting to bring businesses in, and the area allowing it to happen,” the chamber vice president said.

The former chamber board also was put on the defensive when members and residents began questioning industrial sites and who would be responsible to shoulder financial burdens for land development, Jake Miller said.

Controversy led to inaction, and eventually people lost interest in the chamber because they didn’t see any direction for the organization, Doane said.

“They didn’t see a purpose, a vision or a plan,” he said.

Another hurdle to overcome was when annual chamber membership dues exceeded $160 for small businesses $200 for larger ones. That prompted many chamber members to question whether they were getting their money’s worth, Jake Miller said.

“Every community wrestles with that balance,” said Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce. “The folks in Hope want to keep their good quality of life.”

The Columbus chamber and the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce have agreed to provide the new chamber in Hope with resources to assist members, said Doane, who will be taking a non-voting seat on the Columbus chamber board next month.

Economic development

Both local and county leaders have been making a strong case for economic development for several years.

In a community where the median per capita income is $19,357, compared with $28,765 in Columbus, new jobs are necessary to maintain the quality of public services without raising taxes, Bartholomew County commissioner Carl Lienhoop said.

“If Hope just had another 200 to 250 jobs, I think it would give them a substantial economic shot in the arm,” the commissioner said.

Another argument for creating more jobs in Hope is that many young people in Flat Rock and Hawcreek townships without access to public transportation can’t afford vehicles to commute to jobs in nearby larger communities.

Residents who do have their own transportation tend to do their shopping where they work to take advantage of larger selection and lower prices, Frey said.

But perhaps the most effective argument for economic development is the desire to provide more career opportunities in Hope itself, creating a significant reason for talented young people to stay in their hometown.

“Everybody would like to work where they live and provide their kids the same opportunity when they come back with a college diploma,” said Heritage of Hope CEO Michael Dean, whose umbrella organization oversees programs meant to improve the quality of life in the community.

“Every community has the same goal,” Dean said.

In assessing the needs of the entire county, growth in Hope may also be unavoidable, Frey said.

“We are running out of land that can be developed for housing and industry in Bartholomew County, and I think the time is right for Hope to step up,” the Columbus chamber president said.

Attractive assets such as a revitalized town square, freshly paved streets, new water mains and several local restaurants makes the town of 2,100 residents attractive to investors and companies, Frey said.

Improvements underway along State Road 252, just north of Hope, will provide a better link between State Road 9 and Interstate 65, which will be both important and valuable, Frey said.

Moving forward

A more important first priority for the newly formed Hope Town Chamber of Commerce will be assisting existing businesses over attracting new ones, however, Doane said.

“We are rebuilding and reloading with a fresh vision,” Doane said. “We want to enhance opportunities for our businesses to build a marketing model, as well as assist them in other ways.”

The focus of the new chamber will be to provide such assistance on a consistent and sustainable level to members, Jake Miller said.

Since the chamber is down to about $3,700 in the bank, steps are being taken to keep its expenses down.

For example, a change in phone service approved last week will drop monthly expenses from about $160 to less than $20, Jake Miller said.

The new chamber is expected to engage in more face-to-face communications with members that will include a meet-and-greet event at a local restaurant in February, Doane said.

While no formal vote was taken, Hope board members said they likely will keep annual dues for all chamber members at about $100.

But the overwhelming consensus expressed by the new board is that no chamber can function if members don’t partner with each other, as well as the organization, in activities and projects, which is something Hope Realtor Donju Taylor said she wanted to hear.

“A partnering approach is appealing,” said Taylor, a former teacher. “It gets you out, so you can find other businesses you can potentially partner with.”

About the Hope chamber

Location for meetings: All 2017 meetings of the Hope Town Chamber of Commerce will be held at the Bartholomew County Public Library Hope branch, 635 Harrison St.

Next meeting: Noon Jan. 3.

Tentative plans for upcoming meetings and events:

  • February meet-and-greet expected to be held in a Hope area restaurant.
  • Guest speaker in either April or May. Tentative location is Simmons Winery/450 North Brewing Co.

Information: To contact the Hope Town Chamber of Commerce, call 812-546-6403 or send an email to townmanager@townofhope.com

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.