New Fort Smith chamber president wants to get members involved
story by Michael Tilley
If the board of directors of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce hired Paul Harvel to maintain the status quo, they may have picked the wrong guy.
Only time will tell if Harvel, hired April 16 and beginning the job May 26, is successful in his stated goal of redirecting the chamber staff, boosting membership, increasing the chamber committees and getting chamber membership more involved in economic development, governmental affairs and other key chamber functions.
To the goal of seeking membership involvement, the chamber’s First Friday breakfast scheduled for Aug. 7 will forsake the typical schedule of a short speech and Q&A from and with a guest speaker. Instead, Harvel is opening the entire hour to challenge chamber members to offer ideas as the chamber implements “organizational and programmatic changes” for 2010. (The event is to be held 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. in the Reynolds Room of the Smith-Pendergraft Student Center on the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith campus.)
“This is their (members) chamber. It’s not mine. This (chamber) will be here after I’m gone, but many of them (members) will probably still be here,” Harvel said during a recent interview. “There are a lot of things this chamber can do in this community … and in this region, but I can tell you that we don’t have the staff or the money or even the time to do all the things they (members) might want. So what we’re going to do is gather as much input as possible, and condense that down into a core of what we can do that will meet as many of those (member goals) as we can.”
Harvel comes with much experience to the challenge of restoring respect and credibility to a chamber that failed to capitalize on the energy and goodwill of a high-profile economic development campaign that raised more than $4 million in cash and donations in the summer of 2005. That campaign was based on an economic development strategy — aka, the TIP report — authored by Austin, Texas-based TIP Strategies.
Harvel served as president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce for two years, and served more than 20 years as the president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. He is now a commissioner on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. He started Leadership Little Rock in 1985 and was responsible for the vision and construction of the $8.6 million Little Rock Chamber Building, now considered one of the nation’s premier chamber marketing facilities.
What follows is a recent e-mail interview with Harvel focusing on the First Friday meeting and the chamber’s future.
The City Wire: You’ve had time now to assess the chamber’s strengths and weaknesses. Would you please elaborate on what you perceive to be those strengths and weaknesses?
Harvel: “The Major Strength is the support given to me by all of the business leadership, and a renewed commitment by a large segment of our membership to have a chamber that can be competitive with other chambers in marketing our region.
“The major weakness is member involvement and a lack of opportunity to work on various task forces and committees.”
TCW: How do you foresee this all-hands-on-deck First Friday breakfast helping you address the weaknesses and build upon the strengths?
Harvel: “This is a first step in getting major input from the membership as well as presenting opportunities for program involvement.”
TCW: You are proposing some significant changes to staff structure and committee organization. What are some of your thoughts behind those changes, and what, if any, concerns about the changes have you heard from the staff or board?
Harvel: “We have honestly not had any opposition or show of concern from the board or staff regarding change. We have worked very hard requesting feedback that relates to opposition to bylaw changes as well as committee structure. Our feedback has been very positive.”
TCW: You are also asking chamber volunteers to step up and be more active. Historically, and especially in the past five years, chamber members were not encouraged to be so active. Are you concerned about obtaining the necessary level (both in quantity and quality) of volunteer support to help push your aggressive committee restructuring?
Harvel: “My experience has told me that over a period of time the necessary support will be there. I certainly do not anticipate getting all the support at this one breakfast. There are many plans between now and Thanksgiving for recruitment and program development in order to encourage membership participation. Friday we will present a calendar indicating timelines and deadlines for completing this work.”
TCW: Some might think such a large, open-ended request for input at the First Friday breakfast is dangerous. You can’t accept all suggestions, so how do you try to keep from offending or hurting the feelings of those offering ideas that aren’t used?
Harvel: “You always run into the risk of not being able to do all of these suggestions. I will continually tell the membership that we do not have the staff nor financial resources to do everything suggested. I think we run a larger risk by not asking the membership their opinion than by asking them. You will hurt more feelings by not asking.”
TCW: You’ve been on the job now more than 60 days. What has been your biggest pleasant surprise, and what has been your biggest unpleasant surprise?
Harvel: “My biggest pleasant surprise has been all the people that have called, written or come by saying that they hope we are successful and that they will help. I have never been at a chamber where more people have stated that they want to be involved and they want to help. This has been very positive.
“My biggest unpleasant surprise was the apparent small number of Sebastian County residents serving on statewide commissions and boards. This will be mentioned at the breakfast on Friday morning. I was also surprised in regards to staff tenure. I appreciate all of our employees and hopefully the experience level will see dramatic improvement. We will not be able to accomplish our goals and objectives until we have worked together over a period of time as a team.”
TCW: If there is ever to be an accounting to the public and chamber membership about the programmatic and financial status of the economic development strategy built around the TIPS report, when do you anticipate such accounting to happen?
Harvel: “Before I came, Sandy Sanders (interim chamber president) invited all contributors in for a review of the total contributions as well as where the money has been spent. The majority has been for industry incentives. I have reviewed the expenditures and will again be making presentations to the contributors and board of directors regarding the program. We will be asking both groups how they wish to distribute this information during the program development of the chamber.”