Groups Must Step Up
The first thing to catch my eye was a stack of bumper stickers stacked neatly on the corner of the reception desk. “I’m Pro-Business and I Vote!” the red, white and blue message proudly proclaimed at the office of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce office in Watkinsville, Georgia.
I had stopped by for a local map, and ended up intrigued by this small, unassuming county just south of Athens, Georgia. I wanted to find their quaint old-fashioned covered bridge featured in their local brochures, and instead found an active, involved Chamber of Commerce (http://www.occoc.org). What a pleasant surprise to talk to the woman who put her purse back on her desk and chatted with me even though I had walked in to the office right at the closing hour.
The attitudes of the local merchants and Chamber members seem to reflect the commitment found in most Chambers of Commerce. What I saw as a major difference was the involvement of their economic development committee in the highway planning of a major artery in their area. They are actively engaged in the highway planning process, especially whether to adapt a policy encouraging a toll on the major four-lane divided highway between Atlanta and Athens. Its development is an important piece of future economic growth. Four different government agencies and committees attended a recent highway development forum held by the Committee. That kind of involvement will result in the community reaping benefits that might otherwise be lost.
The economic and business profile of Charlotte County will get a face lift following Hurricane Charley, but whether it gets a major overhaul is doubtful. The dependency on small, service-oriented businesses will not change. Our current workforce is generally stressed to make the financial obligations incurred as a result of Hurricane Charley. Many are on unemployment and will not find work in their old locations for months to come. Many cannot even afford the deductibles on their homeowners insurance.
The simple truths about home ownership here will dictate some changes. Not all retirees on fixed incomes will be able to afford the expected increases in home and hurricane insurance. The assessed values on homes will continue to increase, and many may find the cost of home ownership here beginning to feel like the rest of Florida. The areas devastated by Hurricane Charley will have more than a few homes subjected to the 50% rule, where the current structure must be demolished and rebuilt from scratch in accordance with current building laws. The new homes will reflect newer styles and facades and may entice new builders to the damaged neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many home sites will sit abandoned for extended periods while insurance and mortgage companies resolve issues with bankrupt owners who simply move away.
Hurricane Charley will be the catalyst that pries our community, like it or not, out of the past and into the current state of Florida. Now is the time for all business organizations, from the business alliances and the Chamber of Commerce to take real leadership roles in our rebuilding process.