Chattanooga Chamber lands 5-star citation

U.S. Chamber touts local business group's work in education, diversity, development

That has to be what we're most proud of, the ability to connect with [young people], to get them to think about careers and have a role in their education and readiness for the workforce.

Bill Kilbride recalls how the community-wide education and workforce initiative Chattanooga 2.0 was born a few years ago with just three people sitting in a room.

"Look at it today and the work being accomplished and the progress we're making," said Kilbride, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive.

Chattanooga 2.0, the Chamber-backed effort to improve academic excellence and prepare students for future jobs, was one of five factors cited by the United States Chamber of Commerce on Friday when it awarded the Chattanooga Chamber its first-ever 5-star accreditation.

Among about 7,000 chambers of commerce across the United States, only 112 hold the 5-star, or top, designation, according to the U.S. Chamber. Previously, the Chattanooga Chamber had a 4-star rating, Kilbride said.

"To receive a 5-star accreditation is strong affirmation that the goals our board and membership have established are those of leading chambers across the U.S.," he said.

photo Chamber President and CEO Bill Kilbride opens up the annual Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce Meeting Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, at the Chattanooga Convention Center. The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce was recently awarded the Chamber of the Year by peers across North America.

Raymond P. Towle, the U.S. Chamber's vice president of federation relations and Institute for Organization Management, said the accreditation validates a chamber as having programs which benefit the local economy and positively influence a community.

"We applaud these organizations for advancing the principle of free enterprise," he said.

The Chattanooga business group with 1,950 members takes part in the accreditation process every five years, Kilbride said. He said the "very thorough" effort took about two months to compile information ranging from audits and organization charts to member priorities.

Chattanooga 2.0 was started by the Chamber, Benwood Foundation, Hamilton County Department of Education and the Public Education Foundation.

Kilbride said the business community is behind the work of improving educational outcomes of children who live in the county.

"It's to provide a stronger, ready workforce," he said.

Also cited by the U.S. Chamber was the local business group's "school-to-work" programs for about 15,000 students.

"It's motivating them to think about careers," Kilbride said, also mentioning job fairs which the Chamber has set up.

Economic development in Hamilton County was raised by the U.S. Chamber in the accreditation. Kilbride said 1,250 new jobs were created in the county in the past year with the help of the Chamber, which is the county's top business recruitment entity.

"We feel very good we've got a community to attract new business and those here want to grow here," he said.

In addition, the U.S. Chamber called out the Chattanooga group's diversity and inclusion efforts, including its program for minority business certifications.

"It's about getting minority businesses more opportunities at Erlanger, for example," Kilbride said.

Additionally, the Chattanooga Chamber continues to grow its membership, he said.

"I check it all the time," the Chamber chief said. "Members can leave anytime they want if you're not bringing back value."

The 5-star accreditation comes just three months after the business group was named Chamber of the Year by the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.

Kilbride, 66, who is leaving the business group at the end of 2017 after more than three years, said Chamber staff "feel like we're doing what we agreed to do and feel pretty good about the way we're doing it."

The former longtime Mohawk Industries executive especially mentioned the Chamber's work with young people.

"That has to be what we're most proud of, the ability to connect with them, to get them to think about careers and have a role in their education and readiness for the workforce," Kilbride said.

Christy Gillenwater, the president and CEO of the Southwest Indiana Chamber of Commerce since 2013, will succeed Kilbride. He said she'll take part in a Nov. 29 Chattanooga Chamber board meeting.

Kilbride, who plans to stay in the city after he retires, said he has already begun transition work with Gillenwater.

"She has been a Chamber president for 10 years. We don't have to teach her how to be a Chamber president," he said. "The challenge is to introduce her to everyone in this community and help her with the beginning of working relationships with the stakeholders we have."

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6317