published Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Hamilton County to vote on diversity funding

by Cliff Hightower

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The Hamilton County Commission is expected to vote at its 9:30 a.m. Wednesday meeting on whether to divert $75,000 to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce for a diversity program.

A diversity program set up by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce could have a director, a staff member and its own board, the Chamber's president and CEO said Monday.

Tom Edd Wilson said the diversity program also would have the full benefits of the Chamber at its disposal, including design work, promotion and marketing.

"We wouldn't have to re-create the wheel," Wilson said.

Hamilton County commissioners could vote this week on distributing $75,000 to the Chamber to help spur minority business development within Chattanooga. The Chamber could use the money to direct the new diversity business development and marketing effort.

The city also has set aside $75,000 for some type of minority business program.

There has been limited talk about where to spend those dollars. Wilson said he has heard the city would follow suit soon and also ask the Chamber to step in and take the place of the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce, which is under federal investigation.

City Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said Monday she is unaware of any talks about giving the $75,000 to the Chamber for its diversity program. She said she could see the Chamber doing the job but would have to know more about the plans first.

"I'm not going to give X amount of dollars to anyone," she said. "What I want to know is: What's your program?"

The Chamber of Commerce started talking about a new diversity initiative months ago after the city and county decided not to give $75,000 each to the Multicultural Chamber. A Times Free Press investigation showed several financial improprieties within documents provided to both governments by the Multicultural Chamber.

The investigation led to a city audit which, in turn, has led to federal investigations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the FBI.

Wilson said he envisioned a diverse board to oversee the new program. If $150,000 is allocated by the county and city, it should pay for the program, he said.

But the Chamber also has more than enough money to pay for it, he said.

"It's not about the money," he said.

Councilman Andraé McGary said Monday he still has questions about the Chamber's proposed initiative. He would like to know if it would network and promote small minority businesses throughout Chattanooga, he said.

"There's a lot of questions yet to be answered," he said.

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