In 2014, Independence County voters threw out an economic development tax by failing to renew the measure, which had been in place for five years. To many, it was a referendum on as much the plan and vision of administrators as it was on the money being collected.
It was also an opportunity Crystal Johnson, CEO of the Batesville Chamber of Commerce, could not let pass by.
“We had a board discussion going into 2015 and said ‘We’re ready to take on these additional community and economic development roles,’” she said.
Until that time, the chamber had focused entirely on responsibilities such as membership and events. It had been successful at it too, with a membership of about 500 in a town of around 10,500 people. However, county-wide economic development to serve a population nearly four times that size was another challenge entirely.
“We took a step back and said, ‘Let’s develop a strategic plan of how we’re going to accomplish what we want to accomplish,’” Johnson said. “But instead of us sitting around the chamber boardroom and coming up with a vision for our community, let’s take a different approach. Let’s ask our community what they [want] to see.”
Turns out, people were as eager to weigh in as the chamber was to get the feedback. A survey was distributed at a kickoff meeting, of which Johnson said officials expected to receive back 500 replies. Almost three times that many were returned.
More than 300 people also stepped up to be part of committees that dug into the data to come up with executables – 25 initiatives covering tourism, educational excellence, economic prosperity and healthy living/well-being. Johnson said the categories demonstrate the holistic thinking employed by the committee.
“They were these four big over-arching areas that everybody agreed we needed to work on,” Johnson said. “To us, economic development is more than just business and industry.”
Endorsed by city and county government, the five-year IMPACT plan was off and running fast in 2016. The chamber hired a tourism director and got a lodging tax passed for tourism advertising and promotion.
Tactics included recruiting events coordinators, as well as offering incentives for meetings and conventions that met certain thresholds. Grant money was used to help county schools defray the cost of hosting state championship high school sporting events.
On the educational front, the chamber helped forge partnerships between local secondary and post-secondary schools and industries to make skilled training available to students. In many cases, jobs with local manufacturing firms, such as Bad Boy Mowers, are waiting for people upon graduation.
Johnson said current priorities include raising money for scholarships to pay for high school students to pursue skilled training and gathering best practices from other communities to beef up the number of skilled fields offered.
“There have been some really cool success stories that have come out of that,” Johnson said. “One kid was ready to drop out of school and this program comes along and he’s like, ‘I might want to be a welder, I think I can do that.’ Today, he’s operating a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment, he’s bought a house and he’s making more money than anyone in his family. I have 20 of those kinds of stories.”
With things hitting on all cylinders this early in the game (IMPACT’s timeframe is 2016-2020), it’s hard to believe how quickly change has come about.
“It was the community that came together to make this happen,” Johnson said. “For the first time we were asking people, ‘What do you want to see?’ and ‘What do you want to support?’ not just what a group of 20 chamber board members wanted to see happen. Everybody was really excited about this.”