At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce found itself in unfamiliar territory. With businesses shut down for the foreseeable future, and the future for many of those businesses suddenly unclear, the organization whose very core is helping to promote and grow local businesses, saw its own future clouding up.
But instead of dwelling on a potential identity crisis, the Chamber opted to change from a tool for economic growth to one of helping businesses survive.
“We pivoted from member advocate and member services external to the business community. We went from developing our government affairs, developing our government relations, our business advocacy to member survival,” said Tom Struckmeyer, who became President of the Chamber’s Board of Directors in January. “We were functioning as a source of information. Kind of a clearinghouse for access to government programs for funding, for loans, for access to PPP, for strategies, particularly with regard to our downtown merchants and restaurants that were severely impacted.”
But as Covid numbers have begun trending in a more encouraging direction, Struckmeyer, who is a financial advisor at Edward Jones in Hillsborough, sees the role of the Chamber returning to one that touts the area as desirable for businesses. But he also sees the role expanding to be an active participant in addressing the county’s needs to grow its economy.
“Building on our development and growth efforts, we are forming a task force for economic development in northern Orange that is going to take a hard look at the data and drivers for the anemic growth in the county, not the towns,” Struckmeyer said. “The EDD’s have existed for 40 years and our available land for commercial development within the county is severely constrained. So we need to be smart and aggressive about recruiting businesses that fit. Again this was an issue during my last stint on the board in 2005 and it seems as a county we are content to simply see what comes and then say ‘no’ to all suitors, which has given Mebane license to annex well into Orange County. Smart development of the EDD’s should support the county’s vision and promote the business ecosystem in Northern orange and its lack thereof is contributing to food insecurity among our residents and is squeezing the school budget. Of note the rate of free and reduced lunch in the county schools is double that of Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools and the disparity in state rankings between the two systems is striking. Additionally the Chamber will be emphasizing through the Central Carolina Women in Business the food insecurity that exists in the county, as well as raising awareness of human trafficking that is an issue in the area due to our proximity to major interstates and our rural nature.”
Struckmeyer has been involved with the Chamber for nearly 20 years and has regularly served on the board. He views the Chamber as being the primary voice in advocating for the business ecosystem in Hillsborough and Orange County. He credits the Chamber with helping to cement Edward Jones as a fixture in the community, and also with helping him to expand his support of — and further engage with — the community.
Struckmeyer said he is impressed with and excited about the strength of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. He praised CEO Kim Tesoro, and attributes her leadership for guiding the Chamber through the pandemic.
“I can’t say enough about Kim, about the work that she does, and the conditions in which she does it. From the onset of COVID she was putting the wings on this thing in flight. Her ability to pivot — to pivot the staff and to adapt — has been crucial, as well as. I think we’ve got an asset in our CEO. She has operated under pretty austere conditions. If we can resource and staff her to a level that enables us to devote time talent and resources to the business ecosystem, I think that we will be world-class at a whole new level. I’ve seen it for 20 years. We’re evolving. The Chamber will be a source of pride.”