After an meeting Tuesday that lasted more than six hours, the two groups voted unanimously to merge operations – at least in principle, said Bill Hodgkins, board president for the chamber.
The two organizations in effect agreed to merge but had not decided how a merged organization will operate.
However, the devil’s in the details – and those were scarce immediately after the meeting.
The EDC split from the Chamber nearly 20 years ago over disagreements and battles about how to create jobs and attract companies.
In recent years, the idea of re-merging has been discussed but never acted on, however a recent Chamber trip to Oklahoma City, which has unified Chamber and EDC efforts, was the catalyst to act.
But just because the EDC and Chamber have agreed to merge, does not mean the debate is over, Hodgkins said.
“The two groups still have details to iron out,” he said.
Those details include who will sit on a combined board of directors? Who will staff the new office? What, if any, jobs will be cut?
Regardless of what unfolds, Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, said there is a lot to be gained.
“Buseinss leadership gets to see all the programs, where the resources are allocated,” he said. “That’s important when business call about relocation information. It’s more efficient – one set of staff, one set of phones. ”
Oklahoma City has agreements with the city and county to perform economic development work on their behalf. It currently is in its fourth, five-year, $17.5 million agreement.
It also has its own lobbyist, as staff member specifically trained for job creation.
“We don’t have one person trying to do it all,” he said. “We recruited nationally in order to hire the best people to work on job creation, and the best people to support local businesses.”
The result: more than 530,000 local businesses re members of the chamber in Oklahoma City, and job growth is on the rise even in the uncertain economy.
The way the Chamber is set up allowed that to happen, Williams said.
“When a city tries to do economic development, it’s difficult,” he said. “It’s public record, and many companies like to work in confidence. We can provide that.”
The Chamber side of the equation works as a tool for economic development, he said. Oklahoma City isn’t a chamber that happens to perform economic development work. The distinction is important.
“We put the emphasis on job growth, regardless of where that comes from,” he said. “We focus on bringing in new business, but we also focus on entrepreneurs, growing businesses that are already here.”
The Oklahoma City Chamber has 70 employees, far more than the 20 people working at the chamber and the 10 people listed on the EDC web site.
The number of employees allows the chamber to function in a number of different areas: destination retail, job retention, job growth. It also keeps the organization from falling into a common economic development pitfall, he said.
“Often, EDCs working alone become marketers,” he said. “All they do is market the product, in this case, the city or country. They forget about improving the product, working to make the city more attractive to business. If the product isn’t improved, then businesses won’t develop there.”
Despite its success, Williams cautions against following the Oklahoma City model completely.
“You can look and see what other cities are doing, and see if some of it will fit,” he said. “But the key is finding what works in your community. I’ve seen combined chambers that don’t work well, and I’ve seen stand alone economic development organizations that do work well. It depends on the people. It depends on the community support. And it depends on the community.”
Every city has a model that is somewhat unique to them, Williams said.
“Finding that model will be the key to success,’ he said, “finding something that gets support from the community, and something that works for the area. We just happen to do it this way, and it works beautifully for us.”