Photo: Pictured above, Suzanne (left) and Steve (center) Scharfenberg receive the Impact Award while The Chamber’s VP of Finance and Administration Leslie Stephens (right) smiles. Pictured left, Etowah County Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison delivers the keynote speech at The Chamber luncheon.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
The Chamber of Gadsden Etowah County held its Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon Friday Jan. 24 at 210 at the Tracks in downtown Gadsden. The meeting and luncheon focused on the Chamber’s achievements in 2019 and detailed its plans for progress in 2020.
The Chamber reviewed its four key strategies to move the Etowah County Community forward: business-driven talent development, partnering with public education, existing business growth and retention and entrepreneurship, innovation and incubation. These four sectors work in unison to create opportunities and programs to benefit and improve the community.
Gadsden Regional Medical Center CEO Corey Ewing reflected on the business-driven talent development sector’s achievements. In 2019, the business-driven talent development branch expanded Etowah Workforce Academy, a day-long program that provided over 400 area educators an immersion in manufacturing and healthcare jobs with major staffing gaps and provided a professional development credit incentive for completion. The branch also partnered to produce regional Worlds of Work and grew to include all eight grade students throughout Etowah County in both public and private schools. The branch held the Inaugural Etowah County Community Spring Job Fair in May, where more than 90 employers participated and more than 500 job seekers attended, most of whom were high school seniors. Ewing shared that participant surveys indicated a high level of satisfaction and hires, and a desire to participate again in 2020.
King’s Olive Oil Company owner Tena King shared the 2019 successes of the partnering with public education sector. In the 2019-2020 school year, all second-grade classrooms received the Libby Liberty Super Citizen Program that teaches crucial lessons in civics, character, financial literacy, careers and social studies. Twenty-one high school juniors graduated from The Chamber’s Student Leadership program, and through partnering with the Lambda Eta Omega chapter leaders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and Gadsden City Schools, sixth grade students were provided with a six-week soft skills training course that taught fundamentals like proper dining etiquette, handshakes and introductions.
Alabama Power Company business office manager Tony Smith discussed the existing business growth and retention sector’s developments. In 2019, the branch produced the inaugural Etowah County Restaurant Week with fixed menus from involved restaurants at no cost to restaurants to participate and held the annual Etowah Small Business of the Year Awards. The Rise & Shine Economic Development Speaker Series had six sessions in 2019. The sessions featured speakers from across Etowah County and Alabama to discuss economic development in the community.
A year-long shop local campaign produced “Driving the Community,” a video series which featured community members, launched quarterly Small Business Roundtables “What Keeps you up at Night?” and Chamber “Pop-Ups” throughout the county.
“If we all share the same vision, with the same goals and move in the same direction, we can accomplish a lot,” Smith said.
Back Forty Beer Company owner, Gadsden City Councilman and District 5 representative Jason Wilson spoke on the entrepreneurship, incubation and innovation sector’s accomplishments. In 2019, the branch established Building a Better Etowah County as a 501 (c )3 foundation to support the efforts of education, business incubation and economic growth. Wilson discussed how the 501 (c )3 status affects entrepreneurs in the community through providing them with needed resources to prosper. The branch established free Chamber membership for entrepreneurs to ensure that information is available and obtainable for individuals with promising ideas who are unsure of how to develop those ideas into successful businesses. In addition, the branch deployed the inaugural Young Entrepreneur Fair to all fifth-grade classrooms and nine classrooms elected to participate in a program and curriculum that taught students the realities of entrepreneurship and self-sustainability.
While the Young Entrepreneur Fair catered to fifth graders, parental involvement played a major role in the program’s success. Wilson described how those students’ parents and relatives understood the program’s value. He shared that the parents watched as students earned five dollars at their booth, then spent two dollars at their friend’s booth, who then turned and spent one dollar at another booth. By the end of the fair, the same dollar bill circulated the room seven or eight times.
“You spend so much time in this community talking about the value of shopping local,” said Wilson. “When you can teach a kid that very principal within a cafeteria at an elementary school where they understand just how much it benefitted everyone in the room when they spent their dollars with people they know…that was something that really impacted me.”
Wilson shared how The Chamber is establishing the Ascend Coworking Lab in downtown Gadsden, a rental opportunity where business owners can utilize a workspace to perform activities outside the home, like make conference calls or hold meetings. The branch also partnered to produce TechStars Startup Weekend powered by Google, an event that will begin in Feb. 2020.
Etowah County Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison served as the event’s keynote speaker. A native of Etowah County, Ellison worked for Gadsden City for over 16 years and served the last eight in the mayor’s office. As a current member of the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation, Planning Commission, Etowah County 911 Board, downtown Gadsden Board of Directors and Gadsden Water Works and Sewer Board, Ellison’s impact on Etowah County is vast and his dedication to the community is undeniable.
Ellison advocated for the Etowah County Animal Shelter, an internal department that expressed much excitement when he became CAO. He admitted that due to the shelter’s distant location close to Piedmont, he was unaware that Etowah County had an animal shelter, but he urged listeners that though the shelter might appear out of sight, the ECAS should never remain out of mind. He thanked Petco for partnering with the shelter to donate food and supplies, as well as host adoption events.
Working closely with the Etowah County Commissioners, Ellison described the district representatives as six of the hardest working individuals he knows who have a passion for the community and a vision to develop Etowah County for the better. Committed to serve, Ellison said that the reoccurring phrase he hears from the commissioners is “we can do more.”
Ellison discussed his plans to rebrand Etowah County, offering the county seal as an outdated and inaccurate reflection of the community, develop the former health department building behind the courthouse into a space for businesses or endeavors to benefit the county and his desire to nurture relationships with all cities in the county. He attested to exciting new developments throughout Etowah County and potential for economic growth, including Norfolk Southern Corporation’s partnership with the community to develop the Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site, which will be designated as a Norfolk Southern Prime Site.
“All the people of Etowah County,” Ellison said. “That’s always been our greatest resource.”
With the recent changes in the community’s local economy, Ellison emphasized that it is incumbent upon all Etowah County citizens, not just government workers and elected or appointed officials, to do more than they are currently. He gave listeners three take-aways from his speech: community pride, giving and the golden rule.
Ellison said that community pride has never been more important than it is today, and encouraged community members to hold themselves up and carry themselves well, regardless of their circumstances. He painted a portrait of the pride Etowah County citizens should feel for their home.
“Folks 50, 70 years ago didn’t have grass in their front yard,” Ellison said. “[Grass] was a foreign concept – they had dirt. But they swept the dirt. That’s all they had and they were proud of it. Be proud of what you have, be proud of Etowah County and do something to make this place better.”
Ellison advised listeners to give as they can, to discover as individuals what they value as important and contribute as they deem appropriate. At a recent county commission association conference, he and his partners were asked to define the golden rule. Although the definition “those with the gold make the rules,” was shared, Ellison offered the audience an alternative definition. As he held up a golden ruler, Ellison remembered accompanying his father, who was a former Etowah County engineer and Civitan, to sell fruitcakes on Friday nights at the mall. Selling fruitcakes, Ellison confessed, meant that his father bought fruitcakes and gave them away. But as his father practiced the Civitan creed, Ellison adopted the motto for himself.
“The Civitan creed says, ‘My pledge is to practice the Golden Rule and to build upon it a better and nobler citizenship.’” Ellison said. “I can’t think of a better way to end this speech than to say that. We are called to something higher, and I would just ask that you all try to think about someone else each and every day.”
Following Ellison’s speech, The Chamber recognized individuals for their contributions to Etowah County in the past years and decades, each of whom left a lasting impression on the community. The Chairman’s Award was presented to River Bank and Trust’s Ray Smith for his service to the Etowah County community in the banking industry, United Way, Industrial Development Authority and Gadsden Rotary. Smith was also recognized for his contributions to the Gadsden Citizenship Monument’s construction. Brad Smith, his son, accepted the award.
“I know my dad would be honored to be here right now,” Brad said. “He loves this community.”
Gadsden Habitat for Humanity’s Suzanne and Steve Scharfenberg received the Impact Award. In 1996, Suzanne and Steve formed the Gadsden Habitat for Humanity. Today, the nonprofit is building its 56th house, creating a safe and affordable dwelling for an Etowah County family to call home. The couple thanked the audience and community, saying that without the endless support, prayers, sponsorships and community involvement from churches and businesses, their efforts would not have been possible. Gadsden Habitat for Humanity currently has four families waiting for their future homes, and it recently selected three more families to support.
“We are humbled and honored to receive this award,” said Suzanne. “It has always been a joy to do the work we do, to meet the families. Certainly, without you all, this would never have come to be the joyful excitement that it continues to be. Fifty-five families are living in a home they can afford. This is a community effort, and we hope you will continue to help us where you can and when you can.”
The event concluded with board member Jeff Allen thanking Chamber members for allowing The Chamber to serve the Etowah County community and his hope that the efforts given made a positive difference. While the program reflected on The Chamber’s past accomplishments, 2020 Board of Directors Chair Jonathan Tang left the audience with expectation for the future. He attested to the exciting developments The Chamber plans to pursue in 2020 to transform the impossible into the possible and empower Etowah County to success, innovation and prosperity. In the new year, The Chamber will continue to focus on business-driven talent development, partnering with public education, existing business growth and retention and entrepreneurship, innovation and incubation through events like Techstars Startup Weekend powered by Google (Feb. 7) and efforts like FINE or Food Insecurities Network of Etowah County. FINE will feature collaborative network of individuals committed to forming solutions for children who experience food scarcities after school hours, to establish the best practices and significant need to help child hunger in the community.
“This is not The Chamber’s program,” said Tang. “This is not The Chamber’s campaign. This is the community’s campaign. There is no reason why we can’t be successful, but it takes everyone going in the same direction. In 10-15 years, I want people to come to Gadsden and say, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ The answer is we can. We look forward to another great year.”