Six things to know about the annual Tallahassee Chamber conference at Amelia Island

From Tallahassee Democrat

This year’s Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Conference in Amelia Island is looking at what’s on the horizon and what continues to lag behind.

With more than 500 attendees heading east, the sold-out event takes place days before a critical primary local election. Several economic indicators show critical areas still in need of attention, along with several game-changing projects that will shift the economic winds.

Expect to hear big-picture analysis of how national issues, including inflation and product prices, are trickling down to a state and local level. In addition, local experts will give a run down on major projects to watch and development trends.

Here’s what else to expect.

No longer in ‘crisis’ mode

The battle cry at last year’s conference was that the capital city is in the grips of a “workforce crisis” and needs more than 17,000 jobs by 2030 to remain competitive in the Florida, national and global job market.

They noted that there were 13,264 open positions in the Tallahassee region, but only 10,392 people seeking work. Flash forward to 2022: While the number of open positions may have fallen to about 12,000, the need for more jobs has only grown. Officials estimate, we now need almost 18,000 jobs to keep pace.

Sue Dick, the Chamber’s president and CEO, said the community is making progress but the workforce challenges continue.

“The goal is if we could create jobs, a lot of our issues would be taken care of,” Dick said. “I think we played up the word ‘crisis’ last year to get people’s attention. It’s not that it’s gone away, it’s still a priority. What we and other stakeholders in the community have done is build solutions toward those priorities.”

Topics range from children and families to economy

Nearly every topic on the agenda touches the lives of Tallahassee residents.

Among the sessions on the agenda are “The Demographic Drought: Bridging the Gap in our Labor Force” and “Foundation for Future Success: Improving the Lives of Children and Families.”

Ron Hetrick, a senior labor economist and vice president of staffing at Emsi Burning Glass, is slated to discuss how the country is suffering from early signs of a sansdemic, referring to a lack of people to do work that’s needed.

According to the Chamber, nearly every county in the U.S. saw declines in its working-age population from 2011 to 2021. The 2020 Census shows that 16 states reported a net population decline over the past years — the worst since the Great Depression.

As a result, the Chamber is pouring more attention toward education in schools due to today’s workforce concerns and needs for the future. More emphasis is being made on early learning and will be discussed in length.

To that end, the Chamber launched a Classroom Connection effort last year that allowed a Chamber-affiliated company to adopt kindergarten classrooms in public schools.

This year, the effort is targeting Title 1 schools for kindergarten and first grade, totaling about 60 classrooms in seven schools.

The adoption demonstrates how businesses are investing in the community. Those participating often will read to students or provide resources and volunteers for the classroom.

Attendees will also hear success stories and challenges from local CEOs.

Packing meals for hungry Leon County families

Before the bulk of the conference begins, a community outreach event sponsored by Hunger Fight and Prime Meridian Bank will kick off the conference.

Volunteers are planning to pack more than 12,000 meals that will benefit children and families at two Title 1 schools: Bond and Riley elementary school in Leon County. Before the conference, Prime Meridian Bank donated 500 backpacks to the same schools.

Sammie Dixon, chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, said in his written message to attendees that the Chamber promised two things last year: embrace change as an organization and bring people together, adding that they “believed a bright future for Tallahassee is achievable.”

“Your Chamber leadership has been more active, more vocal and more impactful than ever,” said Dixon, vice chairman, president and CEO of Prime Meridian Bank.

COVID impact: No break-outs, some last-minute cancellations

The worse of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be in the rearview mirror. Still, some pivots prompted by the pandemic will remain at the conference.

One notable change in 2021 was no breakout sessions. Before that, attendees would split up and pop in and out of sessions on various topics scheduled at the same time.

In continuing with last year, the bulk of the conference topics take place on Saturday with no breakout sessions. Instead, like last year, the panel discussions and presentations take place in the main room.

“The value in that was everybody heard the same message,” said Dick.

There were also a handful of late cancellations after those registered tested positive for the virus.

Community Scorecard

The Chamber continues to use a “Community Scorecard” as a tool to illustrate the city’s economic health with a color-coded, at-a-glance snapshot.

The July report shows five “red” areas: high-school graduation rates, kindergarten readiness, unemployment, total violent crimes and gross domestic product (GDP).

Kindergarten readiness dipped from 62% in 2020 to 50% in 2021. High school graduation rates are marked in red, despite a slim decrease. Leon County Schools graduation rate was 94.4% in 2020 compared to 94%.

The crime rate continues to be a challenge. The scorecard shows a total crime index for violent crimes at 1,699 in 2020 compared to 1,805 in 2021.

Regional development heading west:

Dick said the Chamber is hearing more conversations among local businesses that are interested in business opportunities emerging west of Tallahassee.

For some industries, Bay County appears to be primed and ready.

“They have a strong footprint here but they’re watching the rooftops to the west of us,” Dick said, regarding local companies and potential expansion. “And, they’re saying, ‘If I have the ability to grow and I’m an industry that’s in lawn, landscape, HVAC, where does it make sense for me to potentially grow.”

Sunday’s closeout session will feature a panel discussion moderated by Ed Murray, a commercial real estate expert and president of NAI TALCOR.

He’ll be joined by Stewart Haire, a land acquisitioner with D.R. Horton, one of America’s largest homebuilders that is entering the Tallahassee market; Jason Ghazvini, vice president of Premier Fine Homes, and Jorge Gonzalez, president and CEO of The St. Joe Company, which operates primarily in the Panama City to South Walton area.

“People need to know what’s happening to the west of us,” Dick said.