After nine months without an economic development contract, Augusta officials say they are close to reaching an agreement with the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber's economic development department has operated without funding since last October when the Development Authority of Richmond County held off renewing the contract to consider hiring its own industrial recruiters.
The new contract, likely to be approved at the August development authority meeting, is said to be more rigid than previous agreements and is designed to hold the chamber staff more "accountable," said Authority Chairman Monty Osteen.
"I think it will be a little more formal," Mr. Osteen said. "We are paying the chamber to be our marketing department, like a contractor, so the contract should have more accountability in it."
If an agreement is not approved and funding is delayed further, the chamber's economic development department and its industrial recruiting campaign, "Forward Together" is in danger of becoming bankrupt, officials said.
The development authority, a taxpayer-funded public body appointed by the Augusta commission, has had an economic development agreement with the chamber, a private organization, for 26 years.
But the authority did not renew its annual $150,000 contract upon expiration over concerns of lack of leadership and accountability during problems experienced last year while courting golf equipment manufacturer Titleist.
That affair, in which the Metro Chamber began wooing the company after it had already entered negotiations with Columbia County officials, led to the forced resignation of then-Metro Chamber President Al Hodge.
Because its funding has been withheld for the last nine months, the chamber has had to restructure its economic development department and eliminate the positions of Marty Blubaugh, vice president of economic development for new industries, and an assistant.
The industrial recruitment program Mr. Blubaugh spearheaded, "Forward Together," continues under direction of Kevin Shea, now vice president of economic development, but has had to rely solely on private contributions pledged by member businesses.
The chamber has since scaled back its "pro-active" marketing campaign, instead opting to follow up on new leads as they trickle in.
Mr. Blubaugh, who still resides in Augusta, disagrees with the changes, adding that most successful cities attract corporate investments with more aggressive marketing techniques.
"I tried to bring a sense of urgency to the job to take the Augusta name out across the nation the best I could with the resources I had," he said.
Chamber President Jim West, who was hired earlier this year, said he expects a contract to be inked in the next few weeks.
"We're going forward as if there were a contract," Mr. West said.
The chamber contract has languished mostly because of other discussions such as the Delta Air Lines reservation center and negotiations with speculative building company Robert Pattillo Properties Inc., Mr. Osteen said.
The new contract will require chamber officials to submit more thorough annual and quarterly reports, he said, adding that chamber allocations would be changed to a quarterly instead of annual basis.
The Development Authority of Columbia County also is working on a new contract with the chamber, according to Robert Reich, development authority director and Columbia County Chamber of Commerce president.
That $112,000 contract expired in June and officials have been drafting "minor" changes, Mr. Reich said.
"The contract is modified slightly every year," he said. "You get a little smarter and improve the process."
As with Richmond County, Columbia County is expected to finalize a contract during August.
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