Forward Opelika — Investing in the City

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By Hannah Lester

hlester@
opelikaobserver.com

OPELIKA — The Opelika Chamber of Commerce is aiming to provide more business help with its new project, Forward Opelika.

President and CEO of the chamber, Ali Rauch, appeared with the Chairman of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce, Sheriff Jay Jones, at the last Lee County Commission meeting of May to discuss the initiative.

“For those of you unfamiliar, the Opelika Chamber is the champion for the business community here in our area,” Rauch said. “We represent 92 businesses and close to 20,000 employees in the region and are considered to be the top 3% of chambers nationwide.

“We operate with excellent standards and are a trusted entity within this community; we’re celebrating 81 years.”

The Forward Opelika initiative is a project to help meet new needs for those 92 businesses, Rauch said.

“As representatives of the business community, when there are challenges that we face, as a business, it is our job to adapt and adjust and take on new responsibilities to ensure that our business community and their needs are being met,” she said. “That is what Forward Opelika is.”

One of those problems includes filling open positions in Opelika and Lee County.

“There are more than 1,000 jobs currently open among our top 20 employers,” she said.

This includes industries, the hospital, mom and pop shops, etc.

“For us, I believe that we cannot continue to thrive as a community unless we have someone focused on filling those jobs, day in and day out,” Rauch said.

Current employees have problems, as well, she said.

“The Lee-Russell Council of Governments did an assessment and found out that 26% of the average household income is what people are spending on childcare and that’s incredibly out of whack so we need to find some solutions for that,” Rauch said.

Other challenges include housing and transportation needs.

“I’m not saying that the chamber is going to come in and solve those right off the bat, but we can get the right people around the table to build a plan and executive to solve those challenges,” she said.

Another goal for the Forward Opelika initiative would include training to help business owners move their businesses toward their goals. There is also some training already available that people aren’t utilizing, Rauch said.

Forward Opelika is a five-year plan to raise $2.77 million, she said.

“The execution of this plan will be a joint effort among all of our engaged partners, yourselves [commission] included,” Rauch said. “And it will provide the leadership and direction that we need to ensure we as a region continue to grow, and grow in the same direction as needed to solve those challenges.”

The first step would be to hire employees for the unfilled jobs through a new director of workforce.

“We’ll also create task forces to solve those barriers that we were discussing, like affordable housing and childcare,” Rauch said.

The chamber will be utilizing a new building soon — the former Lewis Cooper Jr. Memorial Library. And within this new building will be a business incubator, Rauch said.

“The city has agreed to give that to us in a long-term lease rate of only $1,000 annually for the next 20 to 40 years,” she said. “So they have invested in us in that manner by providing us the space.”

Renovations are necessary for the space to utilize it how the chamber wants, Rauch said, which includes the business incubator, office space and a visitor center for Lee County.

“I’m here with you today because it is very important for us to have the support of both the private and the public sector,” she said. “We plan to raise that and get the investments of that $2.77 million, the vast majority of that is going to come from the private sector. Our businesses are investing in us.

“We have just gotten a $250,000 investment from one of our lead industries — the Glynn Smith Chevrolet group has invested to pay for the visitor center.”

Rauch asked the commission for funding as well, however, $250,000. The commission made no decisions at that meeting.

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