Last year was like no other in recent history. A worldwide pandemic that led to major shutdowns of businesses large and small in almost every sector rocked global, national and local economies. In the midst of this environment, the Chamber faced multiple hurdles in fulfilling its mission to serve and support Montgomery’s business community. It overcame them all, raising funds and launching innovative programs to meet local business needs, and its successes were due in no small part to its leadership. The vision, drive and determination that pushed the Chamber forward in 2020 came straight from the top, including past Chamber Chairman Arthur DuCote, former Market Executive at Regions Bank in Montgomery and the River Region. He shared his thoughts on last year.
How do you think the Chamber responded to the needs of the business community and its membership during COVID-19? Business success requires a rapid reaction to abrupt changes in business conditions. The impact of COVID on the Chamber was certainly abrupt. A significant portion of the Chamber’s revenues depend on the lodging tax in Montgomery. With the onset of COVID, tourism was negatively impacted, and the occupancy rates in our hotels dropped materially. The Chamber saw a 25-percent reduction in revenues. Anna [Buckalew, Chamber CEO] and her team took immediate action to ensure that they guarded the Chamber’s financial health and adjusted how they supported the members, our business community. It worked. The Chamber is healthy, and they did a great job of delivering their core mission during a difficult 2020, retaining and attracting business in the River Region while driving economic prosperity for all of us that call this place home.
Can you outline some of the Chamber’s COVID-19 initiatives you feel were the most successful? With the help of the City and the County, the Chamber launched a Small Business Relief Fund to support local small businesses most impacted by COVID. It was very effective. They raised $445,000 and oversaw the distribution to 139 grant recipients. It met the greatest need, when it was needed. You can’t ask for much better business support than that.
What was the biggest challenge the Chamber faced last year? The Chamber is in the communication business. Historically, they have done that face-to-face. COVID changed all that. The Chamber had to figure out how to keep the flow of communication going, while not being able to do it in-person. They had to utilize virtual tools, long before most of us were figuring out how to do it. It took patience, persistence and continuous improvement, all while delivering services real-time with no changes in the Chamber schedule for the year. They did a tremendous job. The Eggs & Issues series with our Congressional Leaders is an excellent example. The Chamber built a studio from scratch and delivered it virtually. The Chamber members loved it. Attendance exceeded that of our in-person events, with the attendance being more inclusive of small business Chamber members. I received several complimentary emails from people that virtually attended that typically did not attend in person. That’s a win in supporting the membership. Another example would be virtually delivering the Diversity Summit. Again, it was very well attended and highly complimented. Another win.
What was the biggest hurdle to overcome for you as Chairman last year? Adjusting to the new virtual world. My comfort zone is face-to-face. The Chairman’s role requires a significant workload of communication to the members. And I could not do it face-to-face. I had to learn how to do it live in a Zoom, live in a studio and recorded for both, multiple times a week. You can say I have a much greater appreciation for the skills of those in the broadcasting profession. The Chamber staff worked hard to support me, and I learned to do it with a smile, most days.
What are you most proud of, in terms of what the Chamber accomplished last year? The greatest 2020 accomplishment for the Chamber was their role in the passage of the tax increase to support our public education system. The Montgomery business community took a leadership role in that effort, and the Chamber organized their engagement. The Chamber worked very closely with MPS and our City and County leadership to ensure that the citizens’ opportunity to vote on the matter passed during the legislative session. That hasn’t happened in generations and certainly never in a shortened COVID session. It was a tremendous example of team-manship with our local legislative delegation, MPS, Mayor Reed, Chairman Dean, and many legislative supporters throughout the state. And then the work began. To be successful, the effort had to be run as a campaign, to educate the community on why this was so important. And campaigns are expensive. The Chamber met directly with the business community, MPS, the City and County and drove the process to raise $650,000. The campaign partnered with the faith community, and the message was well-delivered. The citizens of Montgomery chose to invest their hard-earned money in their public education system for the first time in more than 40 years.
It was a fabulous testimony for people working together for a common cause, despite political, racial, ideological and socioeconomic differences. It was an example of joining hands, standing side-by-side and moving the community toward achieving our economic potential, which can only be accomplished with a strong public education system delivering excellent educational outcomes for everyone in our community.
But the Chamber’s role is not done. In most ways, the real hard work begins now. The Chamber is working directly with MPS in organizing a Community Education Engagement Committee to support the many facets needed to generate a best-in-class public education system in Montgomery. To accomplish that, it will require complete community engagement in supporting MPS. I think Montgomery is up to it. I’ve never seen an investment made in a child fail yet.
Were there any silver linings to the upheaval and uncertainty of last year? Yes. It reminded us all of the most important element in working together as a team. It is not respect or appreciation. It is NEED. The most powerful element is needing each other. If we truly need each other, we’ll respect and appreciate each other. And we need everyone in the community to achieve our potential in public education. And that’s the way it is supposed to be. They are our kids.
Editor’s Note: At the end of last year, Arthur DuCote retired from his position of Market Executive at Regions Bank in Montgomery and the River Region. He served Regions and its predecessor banks for 28 years.