Cover Story

Chamber Rounds

by Leslie Turk

Inside the history and leadership of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce

Throughout 2004, Gary McGoffin didn't mince words.

The immediate past chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce told the Lafayette Parish School Board it had "plundered" the 2001 half-cent sales tax the chamber supported to pay for teacher raises and said the money was instead used to fund lower class sizes. McGoffin was especially critical of longtime school board member David Thibodaux's role in the issue. "There is no leadership coming from you," McGoffin told Thibodaux, according to a story published in The Advocate. "You're unrelenting on this, and you are doing a disservice to this system."

Then there were the heated exchanges in a conference call with Cox Communications and BellSouth officials over a chamber-sponsored forum to discuss the Lafayette Utilities System's proposed fiber-to-the-home project. "It was one of the most brutal phone calls I've been in," McGoffin told The Ind last June.

But attorney McGoffin is best-known for his even-handed manner and cool negotiating skills, and was able to engage the school board ' well, most of its members ' and earn the respect of U.S. District Judge Richard Haik, who is overseeing the almost four decades old desegregation case and will decide whether to grant the school system unitary status. Haik says the chamber's role has been invaluable since his first desegregation hearing in 2000 and has likely cut the years of delay "in half." The judge singles out McGoffin's leadership.

"I think he stepped it up a notch," says Haik. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. When a person like Gary speaks to me, I listen."

Often employing his legal skills to dissect issues, McGoffin spent years attending school board meetings and educating himself on the system before leading the chamber's education efforts with the school board. Coupling his knowledge with a passion for the well-being of students, he's embodied civic leadership and raised the bar for the role of the chamber chair. After McGoffin's tenure, expectations of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce are at an all-time high.

Founded in 1935, the chamber is an advocacy group that works to improve the business environment and economic health of the region. It bills itself as the "front door of the community," acting as a clearinghouse of information and resources.

Prominent and active in Lafayette Parish, the local chamber is often looked to for its leadership on key issues. In one instance in 2004, the chamber disappointed a faction of business people ' including some longtime members ' when it failed to endorse LUS' fiber to the home project. A major proponent of technology initiatives ' and the foundation for the creation of Zydetech ' the chamber took the safer route, issuing a blanket statement of support for broadband.

Those kind of decisions are measured against the visionary accomplishments of some of McGoffin's predecessors. Attorney Bob Cole, the chairman (then called president) in 1983, helped push through legislation to create the Bayou Vermilion District to clean up the Vermilion River and contain soil erosion. Out of the effort also came a bond issue to establish Vermilionville. Long out of the purview of the chamber, the BVD has sometimes fallen short of its goals, but Cole's foresight stands as a shining moment in much the same way as John Smith's call for consolidation in 1991 and McGoffin's work on education last year.

The chamber has successfully combined such initiatives with an incubation program that created crucial spinoff organizations like the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, the Lafayette Education Foundation and Zydetech, which hopes to be the latest chamber prodigy to strike out on its own.

In the process, the chamber has become a powerful political entity. (Joey Durel's 2001 chairmanship was a springboard to his bid to become city-parish president in 2004.) On more than one occasion it successfully struck down sales tax proposals and now has the political clout to give just about any government or community project momentum. But despite its prominence and role as a community activist willing to step on toes to bring a project to fruition, the chamber has sometimes lacked a continuous agenda and in more recent years has been plagued by declining membership.

McGoffin says that's changing.

Continuity is key

While a host of chamber-initiated projects have made it to the finish line, the annual changing of the chairman's position has sometimes meant a shift of focus and a loss of valuable resources.

In 1992 residents voted on consolidation of city and parish governments, due in large part to Chairman John Smith's 1991 declaration. His vision made quite an impression on a rising young business leader, Gregg Gothreaux, who had moved to Lafayette only a few years earlier. "I had no idea how important a role the chamber played until I heard John Smith give his now famous speech about consolidation of government," says Gothreaux. "I was simply blown away by the strength and resolve of this man. I had never heard [outside of a legislative body] such conviction to changing such an important element of a community." Gothreaux went on to become the head of LEDA in 1995.

"We were asking the politicians for change, but we needed to take the bull by the horns," says Smith. For him, the success of the effort he championed and the roles of subsequent chairs in the 1996 transition to one government is coupled with disappointment. Smith says the chamber didn't follow through with the initial plan to study the cost savings of consolidating city police and the sheriff's departments, in much the same way New Iberia has combined the two.

In another instance, restaurateur Ken Veron's 1995 push to market Lafayette as a retirement community, much like cities in Florida, lost steam when his term as chair ended. Three years later, Chairman Larry Sides pushed through the "Gateway" project, raising $1.1 million in community and state funds to landscape and add drainage infrastructure to the 1-10/1-49 entrance into Lafayette. Only a portion of the 98-acre beautification project has been well maintained since that time.

Former Chairman Jim Prince was similarly let down that one of his major initiatives also came to an end along with his 1998 reign. The chamber had dabbled in education issues for years, but it was Prince who formed a Blue Ribbon Panel to create community wide consensus on various reform initiatives, such as early childhood education and after school programs. Prince called in the Lafayette Diocese, LEDA, the public school system and the university and laid the groundwork for change, but the panel disbanded when his term was up.

"I think the committee had the best chance of getting broad consensus," says Prince. "While the chamber continued some of the [education] initiatives, the real role of that committee â?¦ just died."

Prince's successor had a new project on her mind. Dr. Jean Kreamer of UL Lafayette took over in 1999 and focused on technology for much of the year. At her inauguration, she announced the formation of a Zydetech task force to study technology as a key economic development resource.

One project that has lived on despite leadership changes is the push for the conversion of U.S. Highway 90 into an interstate to New Orleans. Bankers Rusty Cloutier and Rae Robinson and businessman Bill Fenstermaker worked tirelessly toward that effort during their consecutive terms from '92 to '94. In large part because of the strong personalities of the trio and their perseverance ' not to mention the continued resolve of civic leader Carl Bauer ' the I-49 issue has stayed on the front burner and remains closely associated with the chamber.

The chamber's role in I-49, education, and the technology initiatives ' fueled in a big way by Zydetech ' are prime examples of the types of long-term projects that require stability. They're also a big reason the chamber's structure is being overhauled, says McGoffin.

No longer does an incoming chair have to raise the banner of a new project or feel the pressure to leave a legacy. Because of a restructuring set in motion during Cajundome Director Greg Davis' reign in 2003, it's highly unlikely that important chamber initiatives will fall by the wayside when a chair's term ends. Then vice chair, McGoffin worked closely with Davis, creating a year-long transitional period into his new term.

Acadian Ambulance exec and new chamber Chairman Tyron Picard followed suit by working with McGoffin and late last year held the first-ever executive committee summit, which brought together the incoming and outgoing executive boards. Just last week, Picard took it a bit further, calling all former chairs together for a breakfast meeting to tap their collective knowledge.

About a dozen chairmen showed up, and Picard will hold another later in the year.

"We're going to stay focused on this vision year after year," says Picard. "We'll no longer have a chamber where we simply start from scratch every year."

Under the new structure, the chamber's 32-member board of directors, about half of whom return each year due to staggered terms, is more empowered to determine the organization's platform and how it will be carried out.

'A lack of focus'

Following a national trend of declining chamber membership, the Lafayette chamber's membership has fallen in recent years from an all-time high of 1,560 memberships in 2000 to about 1,200 today. Despite the national stats, McGoffin attributes much of the local decline on "a lack of focus on the value of membership."

Picard agrees that could be a factor. "Maybe [it's] the fact that we didn't define ourselves and our vision and what we'd deliver for you for the dues you're asked to pay."

Membership fee structure is based on a variety of factors: hospitals pay by number of beds, banks by deposits in the Lafayette market, some by employment levels, and educators get a half-price break on the $300 individual membership. Local hospitals, for example, pay between $4,000 and $7,000 a year, at least one bank pays $10,000, and the average small business member pays $445. The chamber's annual budget is $800,000; about 65 percent is funded by membership dues.

The chamber's position on some issues can cost it members. BellSouth, for example, was upset that the chamber had supported LUS' initial fiber loop around the city. That, coupled with the chamber putting its data and phone service out for public bid (Eatel's came in at $600 a month less than BellSouth's) led the incumbent provider to pull the plug on its membership a couple years ago.

McGoffin says chamber members Mike Dehart and Rob Davis got the ball rolling on a membership assessment last year, enlisting Dr. Paula Carson of UL to design a survey. The chamber sent out 1,200 electronic and 300 paper copies, and 360 electronic responses were returned.

"The response was our membership wants everything," says McGoffin with a laugh. Members are especially interested in the chamber's involvement in long-term projects, like education, but also want more immediate gratification in the form of direct benefits to chamber members. Some of that was created last year as well, and more is in the works. Businessman Bob Giles' Nissan and Volvo dealerships, for example, now give $500 rebates on new car purchases to chamber members.

Picard says the chamber is taking an unprecedented critical look at itself, evaluating every aspect of the operation. While chamber officials insist there is no way to measure how the local organization stacks up with its peers, the Lafayette chamber is one of only 10 percent of the 6,500 chambers in the country to be accredited.

For the first time in many years, the chamber is also formally evaluating the job performance of Rob Guidry, its top administrator since 1989. Guidry, who has been out of the office for personal reasons since the first of the month, was unavailable for comment.

"We don't discuss personnel reviews," Picard says. "Rob has been a tremendous assetâ?¦and has seen its evolution through Lafayette's darkest hours. His institutional knowledge, his people skills and affable personality make the job of being chairman easy," he adds. "Our goal is to make the CEO position stronger. Rob's going to be empowered to do more."

Both Prince and Smith say that after a demanding year of service, the chairman is ready to step aside, so they are happy to see measures in place to keep the light burning. "I was at the chamber at least parts of four days every week," Prince says. "I had never been to a ribbon cutting prior to that year. I think I missed only a dozen or so ribbon cuttings that year, and sometimes there were two or three a day."

Though he turned the reins over to Picard two weeks ago, the unrelenting McGoffin is already bucking the system. He's got some unfinished business.

"As for the deseg case, I'm in it for the long haul," McGoffin says.