WAKE FOREST — It’s nice to be on top.
Ted Abernathy, Executive Director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, probably didn’t startle anyone at the annual State of the Chamber luncheon Tuesday when he described the struggles North Carolina — and the world — are facing as the economy slowly recovers.
But his message, and the message of co-speaker Dan Parks, also included a golden lining: Wake Forest is very well situated to ease itself into an economic resurgence.
“Ted and I have mostly worked in struggling communities,” said Parks, director of strategy and organization development for the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center. “This community is not struggling.”
Parks is working with Abernathy and chamber staff to develop a strategic plan for the chamber by year’s end. They hope to gather input from a broad spectrum of people in the community to help guide that plan, he added.
“This plan needs to be lean. It needs to be straightforward. It needs to be actionable,” he said. “So we’re going to be developing an action plan, with your help.”
In his first conversation with Wake Forest Area Chamber President Marla Akridge, Parks said he learned about the economic devastation that followed after Wake Forest College moved to Winston-Salem in 1956. Just as town leaders at that time dug their way out by recruiting industry and changing the dynamic of the community, today’s leaders can do the same, he said.
“Now we’re at a junction where re-invention is more possible because of the leadership, because of the assets, because of the success that’s here,” he said.
It’s unwise to go into the process without data, Parks said, so Abernathy is providing the facts and figures to help the business leaders understand what to focus on and where to grow.
He provided many such figures during the event, which was held at Wake Forest Presbyterian Church with business and political leaders in attendance.
Abernathy showed a PowerPoint presentation revealing a dizzying set of numbers. But he had three major points.
1. The recession has been over for a while. The country’s resurgence is ongoing, but slow-moving. Last year, for instance, 2.1 million jobs were added. Since 9 million jobs were lost during the recession, however, it’s going to take years for that to be erased.
“We lost a lot of jobs in the recession. We’re digging our way out,” he said.
2. Though North Carolina is suffering from a loss of manufacturing jobs, new jobs are being added quickly in the state. Unemployment suffers from an influx of newcomers to the state is taking the new jobs that might have gone to existing residents.
“Just starting in 2000, we’ve lost 43 percent of manufacturing jobs,” he said. “At the same time, professional and technical services, education and health grew by a third. What basically happened is our economy changed.”
3. Building on that, areas like Wake Forest, which are imbued with what he called “affluence and education,” are best poised to keep unemployment numbers low and grow the new economy. The town grew 1.8 percent in the last year, he said, noting that low as it seems, it’s better than much of the state.
“Even [among] Wake County, you’re better,” he added.
The strategic plan is expected to be ready by the end of the year.
At the close of the ceremony, Akridge gave out awards for top chamber members.
The newest award, Businesswoman of the Year, went to Teresa Hale for her longstanding business, Allied Rehab.
Ellie Penner of Sole Dimensions custom footwear took home the Rising Star Business of the Year award, for her entrepreneurial spirt and community involvement.
Owner Beth Massey and the staff of the Wake Forest Art and Frame Shop were credited in their efforts to involve the people in artistic endeavors, garnering them the Small Business of the Year award.
The chamber’s Ambassador of the Year is Cindy Hammond of Qualified Staffing Services. Though, Akridge noted, their ambassadors are all a hardworking bunch.
And Ryan Hutchison, senior vice president for business administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was named the board member of the year.
In her remarks, Akridge stressed a need for the strategic plan, as well as the importance of defining what “products” the community has to offer that can be pitched to prospective businesses.
She also suggested that Wake Forest, Rolesville and Youngsville work together to draw business that might otherwise go to other areas of the Triangle.
Addressing the businesspersons in the room, she said, “It’s important we give accurate data for the future of this community and determine what we want our product to be.”
Though like the town, the chamber has growing pains — their office was recently renovated to maximize the interior space, for instance — it is in a position to move forward, she said.
“We are in the right place. I can say from my peers across the nation, they’re not all in the right place. They’ve had major shutdowns of industry. And they’re in places where people aren’t engaged.
One of the beauties of this community — and the mayor (Vivian Jones) says it well — is we are a volunteer town. And everyone does volunteer here. They roll up their sleeves and get active.”
To view the presentations, award nominees and photos from the event, see tiny.cc/stateWFchamber.