LKN Chamber wins top award


By Dave Yochum. Bill Russell, the long-time CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, is excited: The 961-member chamber has won the top honor from the Carolinas Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.

“I am so very excited as this is an award which represents every element of our chamber—the 2014 and 2015 boards, the past leadership and achievements, as well as our current membership—and our staff,” Russell said, upon learning the Outstanding Chamber of the Year award had gone to the Lake Norman chamber team.

The award comes at a signal moment in the chamber’s history.

The I-77 toll issue has gripped Lake Norman, with the chamber coming out strong against the plan this past summer.

“In 20 years as the president of the chamber I have not witnessed an issue which has been so emotional as the I77 toll issue. Many of us in leadership roles have had to come to grips that our earlier decisions and positions were wrong,” Russell said.

“The concept of Public-Private Partnerships and tolling may be the right prescription in many communities and regions but it simply is not the right answer here. As the details of the contract came to light, it became apparent we could not support this contract. It is very hard admitting you made a mistake.That said, the greater mistake would be to push forward anyway,” Russell said.

Still, changing directions could not have been easy. Large companies in the region have not weighed in, at least publicly, and in Huntersville, key members of the town government have been in favor of the tolls.

Indeed, the CACCE award, which primarily focuses on significant accomplishments during the past 18 months, took notice of the Lake Norman Chamber’s contributions to a regional approach. “They were practicing regionalism when it was just another word,” the CACCE said.

CACCE has hundreds of chamber members in both North Carolina and South Carolina chambers, ranging from Asheville to Wilmington. This particular honor recognizes chambers with more than 700 members.

The Lake Norman Chamber focuses on the three towns of North Mecklenburg: Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville. “It is also exciting for CACCE and the awards committee to recognize the regional aspect of our programming efforts.  That isn’t always easy when you have several communities each vying for their own unique identities,” Russell said.

He said he doesn’t think people join any chamber of commerce because of advocacy around local and regional issues. “But they certainly may leave your chamber if they feel you are not listening to them or advocating on their behalf,” Russell said.

The chamber has always been about small business and entrepreneurs, but in recent years, with new, large companies like Lowe’s, MSC Industrial and Valspar—as well as industrial outfits like Burkert and Southwire—primary job creators are part of the chamber.

“When I first started here at the chamber in 1996, people joined a chamber of commerce where they had a business simply because it was the civic thing to do.  Now owners and managers join associations and chambers where they feel they get the most return on that investment. There is nothing wrong with that. It simply means the chamber must continue to adapt and provide programming and events which help that business compete and grow,” Russell said.

Meanwhile, Russell is working with the Charlotte Chamber on transportation and regional economic development issues. The two groups disagree on the I-77 toll lanes, however.

“We have had private meetings with their leadership sharing our concerns on the Cintra Contract. Perhaps it’s best said we have agreed to disagree as it relates to managed lanes at Lake Norman. That will not prevent us from continuing to do what is best for the businesses and citizens working, living, and visiting here,” Russell said.

Russell is actively working on recruiting younger professionals. “There is a significant number of young professionals who are creating businesses or taking on management roles with local firms.  Our Young Professionals program provides an opportunity for that demographic to participate in programs geared more to the 20- to 30-year-old professional as well as provide networking opportunities for them to build positive and lasting relationships,” Russell said.

Chamber membership is actually down from the beginning of the year—to 961 from 993. Russell’s goal is to get membership back up to about 1,000 by year end.

“I suppose it’s easy to look back on what you should have done with today’s insight. I am very proud of our board and the steps we have taken since this summer to address the Cintra Contract.  While there are those who say it’s much too late to cancel it now –  It’s never too late to do the right thing and we will not lay down until this deal is either undone or there are significant changes which address its current shortcomings,” Russell said.

The actual presentation of the award will take place 5:30 pm Nov. 16 at Port City Club. Russell is inviting 2014 board members who are not on this year’s board as well as past chairs. “Any recognition of our chamber in 2015 could not have been possible without the efforts of those who worked to lay that groundwork,” Russell said.


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