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Georgia View: Changing Of The Guard

 

Chambers of commerce, large and small, are viewed by some as anachronisms, similar to the way the under-30 set views newspapers. Bucking that view, perhaps no chamber in the country has had a longer track record of success and achievement than the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Our Georgia Chamber is no slouch either, and in recent years has piled up an astonishing track record of legislative victories, but that story will be told on another day.

After 17 years at the helm of one of the nation’s most influential and multi-faceted chambers of commerce, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, will retire at the end of 2013, at a very young 68. When he arrived in the immediate aftermath of the Centennial Olympic Games, Bill Clinton was in the White House. Since then, Sam has taken point as the primary voice of the region’s business community through three presidents, four Georgia governors and three Atlanta mayors.

Much is being made of the chamber’s role in the failure of the T-SPLOST ballot referendum in 2012, although the T-SPLOST was in trouble with a capital T from the day it passed the Georgia General Assembly. The Metro Chamber was fresh off a spate of wins supporting E-SPLOSTs to benefit multiple local school systems and had had successive wins since the mid-’90s on multiple infrastructure bond referendums.

As a result, the chamber was asked to take point on the ill-defined ballot question, while several of the elected and legislative leaders who assembled this Trojan Horse switched to the opposition side, along with the Tea Party, or acted as if they never supported this mess in the first place. To no one’s surprise, the T-SPLOST went down in flames. That said, and even acknowledging a less-than-stellar role in the story of rapidly rising test scores in Atlanta Public Schools, let’s look at the other side of the ledger and the chamber’s achievements:

• Stabilizing and saving Grady Hospital

• Retiring a divisive state flag

• Reforming and rebuilding the APS Board of Education, setting the stage for improved performance and new system leadership (along with EduPAC)

• The rapid adoption, expansion and implementation of model charter schools such as Drew Elementary and, soon, the new Drew High School

• The NCAA Final Four, SEC Champion-ship, Centennial Olympic Games and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, now part of the BCS Championship series (in partnership with the Atlanta Sports Council and ACVB)

Yes, some of these accomplishments came to some extent before Sam Williams, but that is part of the story of the Atlanta chamber and its legion of spin-off and successor nonprofits, ranging from the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund to EduPac to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Since the Cotton States Expositions in the late 1880s and 1890s, the Atlanta Chamber and, later, Metro Atlanta Chamber and Forward Atlanta have been keeping Atlanta on the map. When you are Sam Williams and his board of directors, you are in this for the long game, typically planning two decades out. The chamber has been supporting Georgia multi-modal and expanded transit options like the BeltLine since the early ‘90s. Now, 20 years later, those projects are coming together.

For half a generation, Sam Williams has been pushing this region forward, planning ahead and finding solutions to improve our quality of life. He has not won every battle, but neither has any mayor, president, governor or senator who comes to mind. In addition to the impressive length of his tenure, I will point out that Williams has had as his bosses some of the brightest, most talented and most demanding CEOs our nation has produced, with an ever-evolving set of experiences, management perspectives and egos.

And as the economy retracted and the region’s new-jobs and new-residents numbers started going down, Williams smartly retooled and right-sized the chamber and in several cases streamlined its priorities and areas of focus.

There are more than a few lessons here to be learned from this Sam, who has seldom been afraid of saying, “I am,” taking a position and then taking the lead. A tip of the hat and a nod of appreciation to Sam Williams and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

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