Tallahassee Chamber charges ahead with new leadership

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Heidi Otway set the tone while making her first remarks as the incoming chairman of the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce.

Otway, vice president and partner at SalterMitchell PR, is the second African American named for the post in the chamber’s 95-year history.

She wants it to be a “yes” kind of chamber that trumpets a message: Tallahassee is a place where people can build a dream. A business dream.

Hundreds attended the chamber’s annual breakfast at the Tucker Civic Center, which allowed outgoing chairman and Tallahassee attorney Reggie Bouthillier to share how far the chamber has come during his tenure.

More energy is poured into core missions and themes, including advocacy that led to the city’s elimination of its business tax.

As the chamber continues to grow into its more visible role, members say they hope to overcome some of Tallahassee’s biggest challenges including a high-crime rate for the third straight year.

Otway hopes to help shepherd the chamber’s core missions and themes while tending to Tallahassee’s bruised reputation in light of an FBI probe involving high-profile business owners and elected leaders.

“I think the key thing for Tallahassee is to show we are looking beyond what’s going on in our community right now and really help to shape the narrative on who we are as a community,” Otway said. “We have issues, yes. But we are greater than these issues.”

Ed Murray, a commercial real estate expert and principal at NAI TALCOR, said the chamber and the community needs to promote its assets.

“We have an enormous number of positive things going on in town, but we can’t do it alone,” he said. “I don’t see any issue that can’t be overcome. Certainly, crime is an issue. We can’t hide our heads in the sand and not acknowledge that.”

Talent retention continues to be a struggle, but Florida State University reported its retention rate grew from 12 percent to 18 percent within the last year.

“We’d like to see that rise with Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College,” said Berneice Cox, who chaired the chamber’s retention efforts. Cox said moves are underway to learn retention rates for FAMU and TCC. “We are focused on the three as far as trying to retain that talent.”

Chamber President and CEO Sue Dick said her team works daily to create partnerships and networking opportunities.

“We want people to think of Tallahassee not as a place where only the connected can succeed, but as a place where many connections exist that can help you succeed,” she said. “Growing business, advocating for business and driving value to our members is what we focus on every day.”

The chamber launched a new committee in direct response to its inter-city trip to Nashville, Tennessee. In May, 80 movers and shakers flew to the Music City and quickly witnessed a unified music theme that seeped into nearly every aspect of Tennessee’s capital city, not just government buildings, which is often the case in Tallahassee.

Tallahassee has landed on just one theme. The Community Leadership Plan Committee is tasked to come up with a shared vision for the community, a move that follows in Nashville’s footsteps.

“Before we can get to where we want to be,” Otway said, “we have to address where we are right now. We’re having these tough conversations. We’re talking about these issues.”