Chattanooga Chamber head Ron Harr to hit the road for development ideas

Chattanooga Chamber head Ron Harr to hit the road for development ideas

July 24th, 2012 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Ron Harr

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

INTERCITY VISITS

The Chattanooga Chamber oversaw visits to these cities over the years to learn what they have done:

• Indianapolis (1983)

• St. Louis (1988)

• San Antonio, (1991)

• Cleveland, (1998)

• Huntsville, Ala. (2003)

• Greenville, S.C. (2008)

Source: Chamber

WHAT'S NEXT

Former health care executive Ron Harr, incoming chief executive of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, will formally take the reins Oct. 1. Harr will replace CEO Tom Edd Wilson

After only three weeks on the job, the incoming head of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce is ready to hit the road.

Ron Harr, a former BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee executive who joined the Chamber on July 1, says he wants to assemble business people for a recruiting trip to Germany in part to lure more suppliers to the city for the local Volkswagen plant.

Harr also is aiming to reactivate intercity visits by Chattanooga business and political leaders to other U.S. cities similar to what was done in the past to spur new development ideas. "We kind of need to hit the refresh button on economic development," Harr said in an interview in his new Chamber office.

Harr said senior Chamber leadership, including new economic development Vice President Charles Wood, are planning an internal summit next month.

"We'll focus on a few things that have high value to Chattanooga and work on those," he said.

Focusing on helping Volkswagen and the auto sector is one area, Harr said.

"Job one is taking care of existing businesses," he said. "VW is way up on the list."

The incoming Chamber CEO said he already has had discussions with the German automaker about trying to bring more of its suppliers to Chattanooga.

A new survey by tax and advisory firm KPMG revealed that U.S. auto executives expect to boost hiring and expand their facilities.

Gary Silberg, KPMG's national automotive industry leader, said in a statement that even though the overall economic recovery remains weak, that's not the case in the auto sector.

"As a result, auto companies and suppliers are ramping up their hiring and production activities," he said.

By the end of this year, VW and its suppliers are expected to employ about 5,000 in the Chattanooga area.

Harr said he's looking at the Germany foray to take place next spring.

He quipped that the intercity visits, in which local people go to another community for several days, are "R and D -- rob and duplicate."

"We'll go somewhere where they're doing things right, and we can learn from them," the Chamber official said.

Harr said the Chamber plans to focus on inventorying potential economic development sites in the future.

"We don't have another megasite," he said. "We went on an elephant hunt and bagged an elephant."

Enterprise South industrial park only has about 60 acres undeveloped or uncommitted with VW holding an option on about 1,200 acres.

Harr said the Chamber would like a "product list" of varying sizes of tracts to show prospects.

"It would be more of a smorgasbord than one big thing," he said.

Harr added that there's a lot of opportunity to fill downtown and suburban office buildings which already have available space.

"There's still a heavy emphasis on manufacturing. We also know going forward there are a lot of opportunities in other categories," he said.

Regionalism will be a focus in the future, Harr said.

"We're going to work hard to improve regional cooperation," he said, also noting the Chamber's long-range, 40-year planning effort.

In addition, the group's new minority business assistance program is ramping up with Maria Noel named recently to head that area, Harr said.

He said Leadership Chattanooga, traditionally aimed at rising leaders in their 30s and 40s, may expand. Harr said it could include younger, or older, age brackets.

Harr said plans are to parlay Chattanooga's "gig city" initiative, and it also will zero in on bolstering Chamber membership, which now has about 1,700 businesses on its membership rolls.

Harr said Chattanooga has done better than most cities since the recession hit in 2008.

"We're pulling out of it fairly well," he said, though he cautioned he didn't want to sound too optimistic.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.