BY HANNAH LESTER
Last Friday the Opelika Chamber of Commerce launched its new initiative — “Forward Opelika”.
Forward Opelika has three main goals for the city — to attract and align talent, to grow business and quality jobs and to create a business hub.
It is this third goal that serves as the most costly of the three, at an estimated cost of $1.6 million. The first goal will be $440,000, and the second $480,000 for a total project estimate of $2.77 million.
“Our mission is to strengthen the community as the champion for business,” said CEO and President of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce, Ali Rauch. “If our business community has a need, it is our responsibility to fill that gap.”
Rauch welcomed Katie Britt, the Republican Party nominee for the Alabama U.S. Senate seat, as the keynote speaker for the kickoff event.
“This is one of the most vibrant communities in the state of Alabama,” Britt said. “… The work that you’ve done, and it’s not just a big idea — you’ve done the work, you’ve done the research and you’ve put together community leaders to say, ‘How do we fill the gap?’ And I know that what you see may seem like a big number or a big task, but I believe in doing big things.”
ATTRACT AND ALIGN TALENT:
There are four areas of focus for the first goal of the Forward Opelika initiative.
The first, to develop a comprehensive and regional talent plan, is new for the chamber. It will involve a steering committee, a talent plan, hiring a planning firm and creating a process to allow for future input.
The second area, executing a talent attraction and retention campaign, will involve both marketing and supporting the city’s Office of Economic Development.
The third area, growing the talent pipeline, is also new. It will include providing opportunities in the school programs.
It will focus not just on students, but on teachers, parents and post-secondary education as well. It will also develop a repository, a talent portal and a “welcome wagon”. The welcome wagon will include both digital and physical information provided to new residents.
The fourth area of the first goal is addressing workforce barriers, something the chamber has been focused on in the past. This means looking at things such as childcare, housing, transportation and more.
The end result would be “workforce talent in Opelika meet the needs of current and future area employers,” said material from the chamber.
“How are we going to attract talent?” Britt asked. “How are we going to make sure we meet our needs and create a foundation for the next generation? I will say, also, attracting jobs, which is another color of this great [initiative]. And it’s so important and they’ve got to be good paying jobs, but it matters.
“You’ve got to have community buy-in; you have to have people working on every single sector, whether it’s economic development, existing businesses, local leaders coming together to say, ‘How are we going to do this?’”
GROW BUSINESS AND QUALITY JOBS:
All three areas of the second goal, driving entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses, supporting small business growth and strengthening existing businesses, are things the chamber has focused on in the past.
The first, driving entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses, will include training programs, mentorships, guidance and creating a culture of entrepreneurship.
The second, supporting small business growth, will involve an advisory board for small business leaders, peer groups for business owners, a resource center in partnership with Auburn’s Small Business Development Center and then training and resources for business owners.
The third, strengthening existing businesses, means the chamber will continue to connect business owners, train them and support them.
CREATE A BUSINESS HUB:
The third goal of the chamber, creating a small business hub, will be the most involved initially of the three goals as it will involve renovating the old library location.
The old library building will serve as the chamber’s new business hub following an agreement with the city of Opelika that will save the chamber over $700,000.
Located within the facility will be a business incubator, which will include office space, a training facility and meeting space, a Visitor’s Center and AO Tourism office and a new office for the chamber.
The facility will also have an auditorium that can seat up to 214 guests, a multimedia room, a coffee bar and lobby, an outdoor deck and patio, a serving kitchen and a parking area for food trucks.
“I believe in planting a tree whose shade you will never stand under,” Britt said. “And that is not only worth it, folks, it is your duty. It is necessary. If you want to leave a lasting legacy and a foundation for success for your children and their children and a positive impact for generations to come, I need you to step up to the plate.”
“I believe that ‘Forward Opelika’ can spark that rising tide that lifts all boats, and not just in this area; I believe that you will be a beacon of light and hope for the entire state,” Britt said. “I have seen y’all, I have gotten to know you. I love this community.”
The Forward Opelika initiative is built on four levels of supporters: the founder level, the partner level, the advisor level and the booster level.
There were also individual donations in regards to naming specific rooms or goals by certain investors.
“Opelika is the greatest community in America,” said Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller. “And the reason it’s great is because of the people. We have great churches, great schools, great businesses, great industry, but we have great people, and people make the difference.”