ALBANY — When Chris Hardy talks about the prospects for Albany’s future, it’s easy to hear the excitement in his voice. Of course, as head of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, it is Hardy’s job to be positive about those prospects.
But Hardy doesn’t talk in platitudes. He backs up his comments with supporting data.
“I truly believe Albany is on the brink of taking the next step toward a resurging economy,” Hardy said Friday as he drove north for a traditional family Christmas vacation. “The tell-tale factor is retail. When you’ve got national retailers like Gander Mountain, PetSmart and Party City coming into your community, it’s not just a matter of luck.
“Those folks do their homework, and they only go where they believe the energy is going to sustain itself. They don’t just go anywhere.”
Hardy, who has been president/CEO of the Chamber for almost two years, said the local organization is finalizing plans for a number of initiatives that will propel it into 2014 intent upon building on its positive momentum. Primary among those initiatives is the legislative agenda recently approved by the Chamber’s member businesses. That agenda supports six items:
— The most favorable water resource policies that best safeguard economic development and agri-business in Southwest Georgia;
— Consolidation and relocation of elements/units of the Georgia National Guard to Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, which would result in the enhancement of (National Guard) daily operations while providing greater resiliency to the base and surrounding area;
— Full funding for the construction of the Albany State University Language, Performing and Visual Arts Center, which would provide specialized needs, additional classrooms, teaching labs, lecture and performance hall, computer labs and art studios;
— Full funding of Phase II of the Carlton Construction Academy at Albany Technical College, which has been identified as the No. 1 capital project by the State Board of Directors of the Technical College System of Georgia;
— Funding for the completion of the student center on the campus of Darton State College, which would accommodate student government and clubs, servant leadership programs, the Darton College Police Department, testing center complex and other vital departments and program-based offices;
— The increase of state funding for health care reimbursements to local health care providers.
“There’s a different feeling around Albany this Christmas compared to last,” outgoing Chamber Board Chairman Cynthia George said. “There’s a sense of hope in our community. We’ve made progress over this past year, and we have put things in place to continue the momentum into 2014. I think this legislative agenda addresses some very specific needs in our community that represent the interests of our member businesses.”
Both George and Hardy are certified lobbyists who will, at times, take the community’s concerns directly to the state Legislature when it convenes in January. Hardy said the Chamber will take a much more involved advocacy approach on its members’ behalf in 2014.
“We’re working on some things that will step up our advocacy efforts in 2014,” the Chamber president said. “In the past the Chamber has had a person dedicated to public policy, and that’s an area we want to address starting this year. We’re taking some other steps, but both Cynthia (who also serves as chair of the Chamber’s Legislative Affairs Committee) and I will be going to Atlanta to address members of the General Assembly directly.”
Hardy said the Chamber’s plans for the coming year reach beyond advocacy. He notes that focus will be placed on small businesses in 2014, on becoming more involved in the elections process, on educational initiatives and on development of an in-house Leadership Institute.
“We’re not going to form a Political Action Committee and try to get involved in getting certain local and state candidates elected, but we do intend to get more involved in the elections process,” Hardy said. “We’ll hold candidate forums so that our membership will have an opportunity to find out candidates’ stances on issues that most concern them. That’s something we haven’t done in quite some time.
“We’re not going to support any particular candidate — unless we form a PAC, we can’t — but we can help our community and business leaders take a better look at important issues.”
The Chamber president said the organization’s efforts on behalf of small businesses will go “beyond just brochures.”
“This is not going to be a seasonal campaign, but something that’s sustainable, something that has real meat to it,” Hardy said. “We’ll sit down with members of the service industry, for example, and ask them what we can do to directly impact them and help them meet their needs.
“And we plan to make an official announcement at our annual meeting Jan. 23 about plans for a Leadership Institute with a working curriculum. It’s going to be a big year for the Chamber.”
George said 2013 was a good year, and she expects the momentum to continue under incoming Chairman Jim Deal.
“We had a (two-day) membership drive that added more than 100 new members,” she said. “They’re going to bring new ideas to help us continue to grow as a community. I think as an organization, we have narrowed our focus. Improving our community starts at home.”