SPIRIT OF COLLABORATION: Chamber looks at past, present and future at annual meeting

The good life is one lived in praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors.”

This proverb from Latin historian Tacitus was one that J. Irwin Miller liked to quote, according to The American Scholar magazine. The maxim was also shared by Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Frey at the chamber’s annual meeting as she looked forward to what local business leaders hope to accomplish in the future.

The chamber’s 112th annual meeting was held at The Commons on Wednesday. In keeping with the 2021 Bicentennial celebration, chamber members and local leaders used the event to reflect on the community’s past and present achievements, as well as what might be accomplished in the future.

The event also featured recognition of Edna V. Folger Outstanding Teacher Award recipient Peggy Myers and local Maverick Challenge winner Trey Nebergall, as well as a quick speed networking session for members to meet new people and make up for time lost during the pandemic.

The meeting began with a look at local business, community and chamber development over the years, with board members presenting information on different eras.

“This is a really special community,” said Frey, “and that didn’t happen by accident. One reason it is the way it is because so many business leaders like you took action long ago and continue to. As a chamber member, you are part of a 131-year history of working together to help propel our community forward.”

The Businessmen’s Committee was first formed in 1890, said chamber board member Scott Redelman with Toyota Material Handling. Its members worked “to make Columbus more attractive for industry and for new residents.”

In 1908, the committee was renamed The Columbus Commercial Club. Leadership included bankers, manufacturers, land developers, jewelers, merchants and even a mortician.

“Its mission?” Redelman said. “‘This organization is out for railroads or factories or anything else that will benefit Columbus.’ It’s truly the first economic development organization in our county’s history.”

Board member Lia Elliot with GC Staffing shared that the commercial club changed its name in 1915 and “became affiliated with the national Chamber of Commerce.” The chamber depended on short-term staff to help it grow, including a young Harland Sanders, later known as Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“He actually sold chamber memberships here in town before he founded his world-famous fried chicken franchise,” said Elliot.

From 1943 to 1945, the chamber began planning for the postwar era. Leaders came up with a 15-point plan that included the establishment of a planning commission, annexing East Columbus, new utilities facilities, infrastructure improvements and recreation facilities. By the end of 1948, more than 35 projects from the plan were complete or underway.

The chamber moved to its current headquarters in 1972, said board member Steven Engelstad with Engelstad Wealth Advisors. The chamber’s foundation was chartered in 1973 and helped spearhead the IUPUC center and the opening of the visitors’ center. The foundation also “provided the mechanism to launch the Economic Development Board.”

“By the 2000’s, the chamber established itself as a one-stop shop for small business development and support, merging with the Columbus Enterprise Development Corporation, partnering with the Indiana Small Business Development Corporation and SCORE to provide services to newly-forming and existing small businesses,” Englestad said.

“The chamber and its members have helped set the direction for community and economic development for decades,” said Frey. “Let’s look at ways that chamber members are continuing that great legacy.”

Moving on to current initiatives, chamber board member Nick Sprague, of Sprague Hotel Developers, spoke about the chamber’s “Think Local” campaign. Sprague said that he’s seen the negative impacts of the pandemic on businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, which is why he appreciates the volunteers working on this campaign.

The campaign, which is supported by the chamber, formed in 2020. Dedicated volunteers came up with goals involving the promotion of local businesses and the “Think Local” mindset, said Sprague. Businesses were also offered training and other resources.

“The effort is very much in spirit of what a chamber’s supposed to do,” Sprague said. “It’s about members helping members.”

The chamber has also provided support for Targeted Investment in Minority Entrepreneurs or TIME, which provides business and financial resources to local minority-owned businesses. The chamber’s foundation served as the fiscal agent for the program, said Johnnie Edwards, president of the Columbus/Bartholomew Area Chapter of the NAACP. It has also provided a “deep membership discount” to TIME participants who choose to join the chamber.

Edwards also thanked a variety of other local businesses and organizations that have contributed to the program.

“So far, we’ve been able to help support 19 black-owned businesses here in Bartholomew County,” he said. “And we’re just getting started. We’re already in conversation with Su Casa about expanding this program, and we look forward to working with many other minority groups to help them grow as well.”

Audience members also heard from representatives with Velocities — the chamber’s partnership with the Mill in Bloomington and Elevate Ventures — as well as the Columbus Propeller makerspace.

Both Velocities and the Heritage Fund have provided financial support for the new makerspace, said Propeller President Bryan Rushton. Furthermore, funds from the airport TIF given by the Columbus Redevelopment Commission are being used to make physical improvements to the site. The chamber has also been involved in supporting this initiative.

Propeller, which is located on airport property, will have a “dual purpose to foster innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Rushton.

“It will be a place open to all — college students, tinkerers, entrepreneurs and even artists,” he said. “Our goal is to open with a full schedule of programming and offer memberships in the first quarter of next year.”

In looking to the future, Frey discussed the region’s hope of obtaining a Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative grant. Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, as well as Edinburgh and other nearby locations, have partnered to form the South Central Indiana Talent Region for their grant application.

“We’re really trying to create game-changing scenarios, not just for our county but our neighbors,” Frey said.

The region is competing with 17 others for funding from the state. Frey said that if they’re successful, the region’s approximately $50 million request “will leverage another $330 million in public and private investment.” Leaders plan to spend these dollars on entrepreneurship, education, workforce development, housing, talent attraction and quality of place.

Region leaders will give a presentation on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis and have created a video to go with their pitch.

“The end of that video says … ‘We’ve seen what is on the horizon, and we want to go there together,’” Frey said. “So in the spirit of collaboration, stay tuned as we seek to secure the funding to do some really revolutionary things in our community, to build on the strengths that already exist.”