Rob Bradham was named president of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce in October 2015, but even before that he'd been working with local elected officials and business leaders.
As vice president of public strategies for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Bradham founded Thrive 2055, which focused on developing long-range plans for a 16-county region around Chattanooga, including Whitfield County.
Born in Charlotte, N.C., and raised in Virginia Beach, Va., Bradham earned a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in political science from Old Dominion University.
He was hired out of college by Kemper Consulting in Richmond, Va., where he worked for four and a half years. He then went to work for Organization Management Group, which provides management services for trade groups.
After leaving Kemper, he took a job at the Greater Richmond Virginia Chamber of Commerce. He joined the Chattanooga chamber in 2010.
The Daily Citizen-News recently interviewed him about the work of the Greater Dalton Chamber and about the challenges and prospects facing the Greater Dalton area.
The Daily Citizen-News: What does the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce do? How do the functions of a chamber in relatively small community differ from those of a chamber in a larger city, such as Chattanooga?
Bradham: The chamber is a membership organization consisting of 1,000 businesses and organizations that come together around the goal of being a catalyst for economic growth, workforce and leadership development, and quality of life improvements in our community. We accomplish these goals through our community leadership development programs (Leadership Dalton-Whitfield and Emerging Leaders Institute), partnering with the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority on economic growth and workforce development, and, most recently, through Believe Greater Dalton. We also provide businesses with ample networking and visibility opportunities, such as the upcoming Business Expo, throughout the year.
We have a saying in the chamber industry: If you’ve seen one chamber, you’ve seen one chamber. That’s because local chambers serve the specific needs of their local community. Every community has different challenges and needs, therefore each chamber will be different.
DCN: Dalton is probably unique among communities its size in having so many large corporations headquartered here and having so many manufacturing concerns located here. How does the chamber balance the needs of its larger members with those of its many small business members?
Bradham: Having large headquarter operations in our community does indeed make us unique among communities our size. Many of my colleagues in similar communities across the country spend a lot of time worrying about how their communities will attract the next generation of talented young people. One tremendous benefit of our headquarter operations is that these companies are constantly recruiting young talent from all over the country to work here in our community. The fact that they are already doing the bulk of the talent recruitment allows the chamber to focus on other things.
For example, we know that adequate housing is a challenge to making sure those talented individuals choose to live here rather than Chattanooga or Ringgold and commute to Dalton for work. Since we don’t have to focus on recruitment, we can focus our attention on the housing challenge and other issues.
Many people have the misperception that the chamber serves only large businesses. The reality is that more than 80 percent of our members are small businesses. Our networking opportunities are a tremendous benefit for small businesses, as are our leadership programs. Business Expo attracts members of all sizes who are interested in doing business locally, and this event is a great opportunity for our small businesses to meet and do business with our large employers.
Of course we love to do ribbon cuttings because a ribbon cutting means a new business is opening in our community!
DCN: What role does the chamber play in economic development, workforce development and business recruitment and how does it work with the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority and local governments?
Bradham: We have a very good relationship with the Dalton-Whitfield Joint Development Authority (JDA). In the past year or so we’ve partnered with them on several economic development site visits and a few advocacy issues. Barbara Ward has handled our workforce programming for several years, and she’s done a great job building bridges between the business community and our education systems. Our offices are all together in the same building, and that’s intentional. We’re a great team together, and we do our best to be a “one-stop shop” for business and industry looking to expand.
DCN: It has been a little over two years since you became president of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce. How has the local economy changed over that time? What is the outlook for the next two years? What will be the big challenges?
Bradham: When I started here, our local economy was already in a cycle of steady improvement. Our local economy has continued that steady improvement with unemployment trending down, and we expect that trend to continue.
The strategic planning process that led to Believe Greater Dalton taught us that one of our greatest challenges is the number of people who work in Whitfield County every day but choose to live somewhere else. A number of factors contribute to that challenge, and we’re working on addressing them through the six strategies of Believe Greater Dalton.
Of the challenges we’re working on, adequate housing is perhaps the most complex and difficult to solve. Is our housing shortage due to regulatory problems? What role do market dynamics play? Should we focus on mid-range single family neighborhoods, condos or something else? We’ll complete a targeted housing study this year to help us answer these questions and unravel the complexity. We want to make sure we’re pursuing the right strategy with regard to our housing needs.
DCN: The Appalachian Regional Port is scheduled to open later this year. What impact do you think it will have on the Dalton-Whitfield economy? Some have expressed concern about its impact on traffic and traffic safety. Do you worry the impact could be large enough to deter efforts to woo higher-income people to Dalton and Whitfield County?
Bradham: I believe the Appalachian Regional Port will have a positive impact on the local economy. I expect the port will attract distribution facilities belonging to companies that want access to the port in Savannah without the unpredictability of sending trucks through metro Atlanta traffic.
There’s no way for us to know with any certainty how traffic patterns will change because of the port. I personally believe a significant number of trucks will access the port via 64 through Cleveland to 411 southbound. That route doesn’t impact Whitfield County at all.
DCN: Hamilton Health Care System is working on both the Peeples Cancer Institute and the Anna Shaw Children's Institute. When those institutes open what impact do you think it will have on the local economy and on efforts to bring in more young professionals and higher income people to live in Dalton and Whitfield County?
Bradham: Hamilton is perhaps one of our most underappreciated economic engines. They are growing rapidly and hiring doctors and other professionals from other communities across the country to fuel that growth. We’re very excited about the growth of Hamilton Health Care System and what that means for our community.
Hamilton, like our headquarter operations, is recruiting talent to our community. We view our role as making their recruiting job easier by making sure the community is focused on making Greater Dalton a more attractive place to live and work.
DCN: It has been a little over five months since the Believe Greater Dalton community vision was unveiled at City Hall. Tell me a little bit about what has been done to bring that vision to reality and where things go from here over the next year and the next five years.
Bradham: We’ve made good progress on each of the six strategies of Believe Greater Dalton.
Downtown: We’re partnering with the Downtown Dalton Development Authority on a downtown study. We’ll be launching the study in the next month to six weeks, and the study should help us understand growth and redevelopment opportunities downtown as well as ways we can improve the look and feel of downtown.
Housing: We’re also very close to launching a comprehensive housing study of Whitfield County. The study will answer a lot of questions we have about gaps in the market, identify areas for development of new housing, redevelopment opportunities and perhaps creative financing or incentive options.
Entrepreneurship: We recently announced a partnership with a host of local organizations that will result in the creation of the Dalton Innovation Accelerator (DIA) and an entrepreneurial pitch competition called PitchDIA (scheduled May 15). DIA will be a physical space for entrepreneurship downtown that we hope will incorporate space for Dalton State. This is a very exciting development that we didn’t expect to happen in our first year, but it shows how powerful broad partnerships can be in getting things done.
Economic Development: Obviously, the JDA’s industrial recruitment efforts are critical and must continue. In addition to this work, our economic development group is exploring mechanisms that would allow us to redevelop commercial and industrial properties in our community that are currently blighted or underutilized. Traditional economic development incentives don’t really work for these projects, so we need to be creative if we want to take advantage of these opportunities.
Education: On April 9, we’ll be having a public meeting with a marvelous speaker from Tulsa, Okla. It’s an opportunity for the community to come out and learn more about the concept of collective impact in education, which is what we’re proposing to implement in our community.
Community Pride: Over 100 people attended our first round of public input sessions in February at First Baptist Church. The feedback was great, and the two top issues people brought up were community beautification and telling our community’s positive story. We’re in the process of figuring out where to start on the beautification, so stay tuned for some updates on that.