This month marks my 25th year with the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce….a milestone from which to reflect on the past, but also look toward the future. Going through my files the other day, I found some letters we wrote to then N.C. Senator Fountain Odom in Raleigh years ago.
Most Chamber members join our association because of the many networking opportunities or for the chance to improve their marketing, management, or sales skills through our many seminars and programs. But a very important role the Lake Norman Chamber plays is being the voice of local businesses whether that’s at Town Hall, in Raleigh, or in the Halls of Congress.
In 1996, a group of our chamber members went to Raleigh to meet with Senator Odom regarding legislation he had sponsored. His bill would change the way our towns and cities annex. Our North Mecklenburg towns were opposed to the bill. While that may not sound like a business issue, the growth of our towns is very important to the overall vitality and health of our region. The chamber played, and still maintains, a key role in the economic well-being of the Lake Norman region.
It was my first trip to Raleigh and after a short wait we were escorted in to see the Senator. There was some small talk before we got down to the real reason we were there. Senator Odom saw me looking at the beautiful ornate humidor sitting on his desk. He interrupted the Chamber Board Chair, Scott Lawrence, then opened the box and asked if we smoked. Indicating that we did smoke cigars on occasion, the Senator offered each of us a cigar, and took one for himself. He then leaned back in his chair, clipped the end of the cigar, and lit it up to my astonishment.
“Are you going to smoke that in here sir?” I asked, rather aghast. Senator Odom replied, “Son, this is Raleigh and North Carolina was built on tobacco.”
Senator Odom then asked if we were aware he had sponsored the Bill in question. “Yes sir,” I replied. Odom took a few puffs on his cigar and with a glint in his eye said, “Boys, don’t worry. That bill has been sent down to the rules committee where it will stay parked till we adjourn.” His language was clear – the bill would die in committee. Senator Odom sponsored legislation that pleased one group of supporters and had his own Bill sent to die in committee to take care of the other side. In the end, nothing happened.
As we were walking back down the hallway, Charles Knox, our Chamber’s public policy chair at the time, looked at me and said, “Welcome to Raleigh.”
Over the course of the last 25 years, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has become very effective in advocating for our members. I could cite hundreds of cases where our chamber’s voice helped this region….whether it was assisting local businesses with zoning issues, overturning the county’s faulty property tax reval a few years ago, or bringing new health care facilities our classrooms our way.
We successfully lobbied for new schools and expanded roads and stood up to Bond Packages which did not support our community. The Lake Norman Chamber led an effort to get a multi-jurisdictional transportation access management study when that type of study had never been commissioned before. We were able to get road improvements that had been denied to one of our towns by NC DOT.
But it’s the lesson I learned early from a freshman NC House Member I will always cherish the most.
On another visit to Raleigh, Representative Drew Saunders told us the greatest lesson he had ever learned was, “Never burn a bridge – whether that’s in business or politics! The person on the other side of the issue today could be one of your biggest allies’ tomorrow.”
In some respect Raleigh, much like Lake Norman has changed quite a bit in 25 years. Tobacco may have built North Carolina but it’s been replaced by finance and technology. But some of the games played decades ago are still going on, and not just in our state capital, but in Washington DC as well.
As we cross the bridge into our next decade, I am quite confident of one thing though – working hard, working smart and working together there is nothing that we cannot accomplish. Happy 2020!