Writer: Gabriela Enamorado
2 min read July 2023 — Despite the current period of economic volatility, Atlanta’s various Chambers of Commerce are prioritizing continuing to build a strong workforce, ensuring a safe community and helping local businesses with any resources they need.
Cobb County, the state’s third most populous county,and Clayton County, home to one of the world’s busiest airports, are leaning on their local chambers of commerce to support the business community. Focus: spoke with Valencia Williamson, president and CEO of Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, and Sharon Mason, president and CEO of Cobb Chamber of Commerce, about the challenges their business communities are facing and how they see their respective counties growing and changing moving forward.
What have been some of the key highlights for the chamber?
Valencia Williamson: During the pandemic, we partnered with Clayton County Board of Commissioners and the Development Authority of Clayton County to identify small businesses that needed assistance and to disseminate financial resources. We learned that our business community needed ongoing training and education resources that the Chamber could provide, so in 2022 we linked up with the County to launch an eight-week small business and entrepreneurial educational series that touched more than 200 businesses. Following our eight-week series, we expanded our efforts and partnered with one of our banking members, JP Morgan Chase to help facilitate additional sessions, and to expose our small business owners to the plethora of financial resources available. This was very strategic because it put a banker in the room with attendees, many of whom were either underbanked or had no banking relationships, and by making that introduction, we helped to establish trust and awareness of the financial opportunities available. Our small business & entrepreneur training series is not exclusive to Chamber members. We also extend the sessions to prospective members because it exposes them to the Chamber, and helps to get their foot in the door, especially if they aren’t ready to join.
Regarding our education initiatives, we’ve traditionally had programs to connect the school district with the business community through the annual Principal Partners Day program. In 2021, that effort was expanded to include the Hands-On Pathways Expo (HOPE), a collaborative effort between Clayton County Public Schools Career Technical & Agricultural Education, and Atlanta Technical College. HOPE is designed to introduce students to career opportunities, and helps them to identify a career pathway in high school which tees them up for post graduate success.
Sharon Mason: There has been significant economic momentum; with the continued expansion of our target industries, global North American headquarters, and recruiting high-quality jobs to this area. In the past year, we opened TK Elevator North American headquarters at The Battery Atlanta, creating 1,000 high-quality jobs. It is now the tallest building in Cobb County, measuring 420 feet, becoming a tourist destination. Papa John’s global headquarters moved in this year next door to TK Elevators.
We are witnessing the vibrancy of the Atlanta Braves’ development in Truist Park, which has been a tremendous economic driver for business. Businesses want to be around the great environment they’ve created because it helps their workforce and reflects a great destination.
We’ve helped several businesses and industries with significant growth in the logistics industry. One example is Vanderlande. There were 500 high-quality jobs added at the Town Center area which opened this year.
We’re very blessed to have Dobbin Air Reserve Base in Cobb County. It serves a tremendous function for the national defense system. The chamber has great opportunities to advocate and support Dobbins and the defense community. Lockheed Martin has a presence in Marietta with over 5,000 jobs building airplanes, and we recently brought Georgia Tech Research Institute to Lockheed Campus. Everything is simultaneously playing a vital role in our national defense system and is a crucial part of our community.
What have been some of the challenges faced by the county and the chamber this year?
Williamson: Access to healthcare. Clayton County is a designated Health Professional Shortage Area, especially as it relates to primary care providers. It is estimated that there are 31 primary care physicians per 100,000 population in Clayton County, as compared to the state of Georgia with 66 medical providers per 100,000 population. As reported by Southern Regional Medical Center under Mental Health Services in their needs assessment report, Clayton County has 1 mental health provider per 1,880 patients which is substantially fewer healthcare providers than surrounding communities. In 2022, Southern Regional was a recipient of a HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration) grant in the amount of $1.15M to expand mental health services for the community. It is our responsibility as leaders in business to be aware of the challenges and needs of our healthcare community and to use our voice to educate employers, and advocate at the state at federal levels for additional resources.
Regarding the Chamber, I think our biggest challenge continues to be educating business owners and communicating value. Chambers of commerce across the country have been forced to expand our offerings simply because there are so many diverse platforms and avenues now for business owners and professionals to access resources and to attain exposure. It’s imperative that Chambers have a seat at the table and are a voice for identifying solutions for both our private and public-sector partners.
Mason: Workforce is our greatest strength and the number one challenge because employers have had to recruit, think and retain differently. Inflation and the economy have made it a challenge nationwide, leading every community to rethink how it approaches business. As a chamber, we’re making certain that we stay on top of that to best help businesses in the most effective way.
There’s a growing trend with more people starting a business. So, we partnered with Kennesaw State University (KSU) to launch a business incubator called Hatchbridge. KSU has an entrepreneurship focus; we intend to utilize this resource by fostering access to the community. You don’t have to be a KSU student or an affiliate. However, it’s at the KSU center. It’ll be an in-person and virtual environment. It’s a structured program that brings in mentors, capital and advice that a company or an entrepreneur requires.
How do you expect the county to continue growing and changing?
Williamson: We’re in the midst of a renaissance here, with a number of developments on the horizon, especially mixed use. We have a full-scale arena coming online that will house sporting events, concerts, graduations, and youth development programs. The arena is expected to spur additional and diverse retail and restaurants, attainable housing and to attract people of all ages and backgrounds into the county. There’s also a lot of excitement around transportation expansion in Clayton County. MARTA has a few significant projects in development that we’re anticipating, including bus rapid transit. We’re looking forward to the high-capacity transit option providing access, connectivity, and most importantly upward mobility for our residents. Employers want to hire people who can get back and forth to work with ease, and ongoing transportation issues have been a pain point for area employers and residents alike. We’ll see faster and more frequent service, which will create opportunities for growth especially economic development in locations connected to transit.
Mason: Overall, growth across the county and our population is a huge factor in driving talent and the workforce. Our county has done a great job, and we want to ensure that each community is the best place to do business and offers an exquisite quality of life. These are the reasons most people choose to move to Cobb County. If someone decides to relocate or raise a family here, they’d want to make sure their kids have access to the best school, and our Cobb County and Marietta City Schools are outstanding. The chamber’s emphasis is on working with many partners to ensure quality education.
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