Mitch Rhoden, the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 chair, said he plans to focus on three main areas during his year as chair: transportation and mobility, international businesses and young professionals
Rhoden officially took the reins from 2018 chair Trey Sanders at the chamber’s annual dinner Saturday night.
“I've been involved with the chamber for many years in many different capacities — everything from leadership programs to membership to serving on the board,” Rhoden said. “I believe in what the chamber does, not only what it does for the business community, but for our overall community in terms of supporting our military and supporting our parks and our schools. And so it's just a natural fit that I would want to help promote that and perpetuate the good things that the chamber already is doing.”
Rhoden, a former engineer officer in the Marine Corps, is the president and CEO of Futren Hospitality, which owns and operates private clubs. Futren has two properties in Cobb: Indian Hills Country Club in east Cobb and the Georgian Club at the Cobb Galleria.
Rhoden will lead a 91-member Board of Directors who will make decisions on the direction of the chamber, which counts nearly 2,400 companies as members. The chamber also has a staff of 30.
TRANSPORTATION AND MOBILITY
Rhoden and the chamber hope to play a key role in how the county moves forward regarding transit.
Chamber CEO Sharon Mason said the number one challenge that local businesses have told the chamber they face is related to transportation, traffic congestion and getting their employees to work.
County leaders will have several key decisions to make on transit and transportation in the coming years. A bill passed by the Legislature in 2018 created a regional transit authority called the ATL and allowed 13 metro counties to hold referendums on imposing a new sales tax of up to 1 percent to fund transit projects.
The bill contained a unique provision for Cobb: a committee comprised of county commissioners and the 21 state lawmakers who represent a part of Cobb could decide to create a special district within the county. If county leaders decide to take that route, the new tax would only be imposed within that district.
However, the bill only gave commissioners and lawmakers until the end of 2019 to pursue a special district.
County commissioners were scheduled to vote on a resolution asking lawmakers to extend that deadline until the end of 2021, but ended up delaying the vote.
Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce has said he would like to put the transit referendum before voters in 2021 to avoid jeopardizing the renewal of the county’s 1 percent special sales tax for capital projects, or SPLOST. The existing SPLOST expires at the end of 2021, so Cobb commissioners are eyeing a 2020 referendum asking voters to extend it.
Rhoden said he’s in favor of delaying the transit vote.
“We support legislation to extend those provisions so that we can have options later to either do a countywide vote or a special district,” he said.
The chamber plans to put together a committee of people from a variety of groups — educators, nonprofits, business leaders, government officials, students and more — to educate the public on transit and transportation issues, Rhoden said.
“There's so much misinformation about this topic,” he said. “There's many diverging opinions and views, but there's a lot of misinformation. So number one, let's have some common understanding of what the issues are and what the reality of the legislation is and what the reality of the financing is so that we can have a more productive conversation.”
No matter when the transit vote is held, one thing Rhoden said county leaders need to get done this year is coming up with a project list.
“That is a difficult process because it requires community input, it requires these studies to be done and then that data to be analyzed.” Rhoden said. “But I think once we have a project list, then we can all agree or disagree about some specific things. … If we say, do you support these three specific recommendations, then we can have a more substantive conversation about the merits of those solutions rather than this kind of theoretical idea of transit, which may or may not be based in reality.”
Rhoden does not know if rail projects will be included in that list, saying it’d be “premature” to say one way or the other. But he said the list will most likely contain a combination of projects.
“The goal is later this year, in cooperation and partnership with our local delegation, with our (community improvement districts) and with our county commission, we'd like to have this committee recommend some specific items that the county commission would put it on the project list. And so I think it's premature to say one option is better than the other, but the one thing that we know is that it's not going to be a single solution. It's going to be a combination of things. ... There's no one magic bullet that solves this problem.”
The chamber is creating an International Council composed of companies that do business both internationally and in Cobb, Rhoden said. Cobb EMC CEO Peter Heintzelman has agreed to lead the council, which Rhoden expects will meet three times this year.
“I think the goal would be networking and relationship building,” Rhoden said of the council. “And again, relationship building is really at the core of what we do (at the chamber) through creating community ... So whether you're selling widgets to the person next door or you're selling something online across the world, it's all about having a relationship.”
The council would function similarly to the chamber’s area councils, which are geographically based.
There are more than 200 international companies based in Cobb, according to Amy Selby, spokesperson for the chamber.
Mason said having the international council will help the chamber “expand how we support international companies in this area. We already have a great footprint of companies that do business internationally, and that'll help engage more of those companies in our chamber and community.”
Mason said Cobb has seen a 26 percent increase in young professionals moving to Cobb in the last few years, and Rhoden said they will outpace every other age group in the next five years, so it's important that the chamber make a concerted effort to reach out to them.
“The idea is that we elevate that group ... within the ongoing conversations and with the many different organizations that we're all involved with,” Rhoden said. “So whether that's in our businesses, within the chamber and our nonprofit boards and our clubs to just make sure that we're including young professionals and that we're considering their perspective, given the role they play in our workforce and in our society and their numbers.”
Mason said connecting young professionals with “seasoned leaders” for mentorship opportunities will also be an element of the chamber’s efforts.
Rhoden said it’s his sense that young professionals want to be involved, but the chamber needs to make more concerted efforts when it comes to outreach.
“It's just creating opportunities and letting them know that we want them to be part of what we're doing,” he said.