Program Report – Casey Steinbacher – Chamber 2.0

Past President Mary Ann Black introduced Casey Steinbacher, President of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, who filled us in why the Chamber is not the same organization that it was five, much less, ten years ago.

Casey has twenty plus years experience doing Chamber work.  She was lured to Durham from North Palm Beach in 2007.  Prior to that, she had been in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  She has three daughters but her favorite topic of conversation is her four grandchildren.  She said if she had a Powerpoint, we would have been subjected to picture after picture of the most fill in the blank (beautiful, cutest, sweetest, adorable, above average—actually these are my words but you could read her mind) grandchildren in the world.  According to the Chamber website, if she won the lottery she would move all her children to Durham.

Casey noted that the Chamber is the largest business organization in Durham County with a simple focus: to advance economic development in Durham, and to provide essential services to its members. She recognized and thanked many members of Durham Rotary who play significant roles in the Chamber.  She pointed out that after the 2008 recession (and Durham businesses have mixed opinions about whether that business downturn has ended) a “new normal” emerged as a business model.  She said Durham, in general, has been rather successful in growing businesses—roughly $3.6 billion in investments and 11,000 jobs have come about in the last four years, much of it funded by initiatives started in the Chamber’s Vision 3D campaign. 

The biggest growth in new businesses, as opposed to jobs, has been in the arena of start-ups.  These new enterprises expect new things from Durham, not the sorts of services and perks that traditional businesses found in chamber of commerce offerings—local networking, cheaper insurance and the like.  Many of these new businesses are founded by what she termed “serial entrepreneurs.”  When they launch a business, their business model includes an “exit strategy” in which they sell their product or concept, and immediately—if not sooner—plan another. How does the Chamber address the needs of these new businesses as well as the more traditional businesses that make our community strong?  And what are the areas that matter to both?   Casey talked about the importance of looking ahead, “around the corner,” and making sure that Durham has the kind of economy and quality of life that will support all kinds of businesses in the future.

At a recent Economic Development summit, they asked entrepreneurs why they started and stayed here.  What did Durham do right, do wrong, or not even think about? Basically, none of these startup entrepreneurs cared about belonging to an exclusive club of dues paying members and sitting alongside a group of brokers, accountants, auto dealers or whatever  (no offense here) who typically comprise Chamber membership.  They do care about high speed internet, though, and they want to be in a group of young, nimble, entrepreneurial types who see the world as their market.  What attracts these entrepreneurs to Durham and why will they stay here?  Casey says it is principally due to density of talent and like-minded young entrepreneurs.  A strong talent pipeline (think universities, medical research and other innovative environments).  And a major issue is what she called “third places”—  community, things to do, farmers markets, locally owned stores, green spaces, good places to eat, readily available entertainment etc.

One fact I found astonishing: 40 percent of businesses in Durham are foreign owned, which means traditional economic development has a different meaning.  Casey pointed out that Durham isn’t just competing with Cary or Richmond or Indianapolis.  Durham is in a global competition with Rio, Copenhagen, Milan, Singapore, among others.

It was to address these issues that the Chamber created Durham 2.0, which she said represents a new way of providing community leadership that other chambers of commerce are just beginning to examine.  Durham 2.0 is counting on a cadre of Key Investors to support the Chamber’s strategy for the next iteration of Durham.  Through both financial support and involved leadership, these Key Investors will help the Chamber focus on critical issues such as our knowledge base, our global connections, and the potential for arts, culture, sports and entertainment to be even greater drivers of economic activity.  So far, 70 firms have signed on.  The goal is 200 by the end of 2013.  Some of these are longtime Chamber members, but 10 have never been involved in the past.  And Casey sees tremendous growth opportunities among traditional businesses too, noting that a minority of companies located in RTP are members of the Chamber.

Casey assured us that the Chamber will not ignore its traditional membership, which currently has about 1,000 dues paying members.  She outlined two other levels of membership that will offer engagement for smaller firms.  But from her enthusiastic presentation, it is clear that the Chamber is emphasizing Durham 2.0 as the way it can have the greatest impact on Durham’s economic future.

Submitted by Allen Cronenberg

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