South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce begins Gateway Initiative with a bang

By Jessica Vaughn /
Posted 2/16/18

FOLEY – “We have lots of exciting things to talk about, lots of exciting things to share with you today,” said South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Investor Relations and …

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South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce begins Gateway Initiative with a bang


FOLEY – “We have lots of exciting things to talk about, lots of exciting things to share with you today,” said South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Investor Relations and Business Growth & Retention Travis Valentine, thus kicking off the Chamber’s new Gateway Initiative during an event held on Feb. 8 at the Groovy Goat at OWA.

The Gateway Initiative is the Chamber’s new 5-year initiative to help the community’s workforce, education, and local businesses, and to forge strong bonds and partnerships between other chambers and municipalities. For the past few months, the Chamber members have been meeting with local business leaders to help raise money to fund the project in the hopes to raise enough to help push the area forward.

“It’s going to be so wonderful for our community,” said Chamber Chairman of the Board of Directors Sue Alford. “For big businesses, small businesses, middle-of-the-road businesses, whatever size you are. I’ve already signed up, I hope all of you do too.”

President and CEO of the South Baldwin Chamber Donna Watts has been putting the new campaign together for years. The reason behind the program is the recent growth witnessed by the South Baldwin area over the last five or six years, and will help create both local and regional partnerships with chambers, municipalities, and regional community and economic development organizations.

“With growth comes great opportunity, but it also brings challenges to all of us,” said Campaign Chair Tommy Lee. “Many of those challenges are big, and they must be addressed with long-term strategies and driven by strong community support.”

The Gateway Initiative was created only after six-months of data gathering, planning, and strategic development, so that the Chamber was able to devise a campaign that would focus on some of the major areas in the community that have been affected by the recent growth. In the end, the Gateway Initiative will focus on three specific initiatives based on input received from local business leaders: Business Driven Talent Development and Recruitment; Community Betterment and Pro-Business Advocacy; and Existing Business Growth and Retention.


The Business-Driven Talent Development and Recruitment Initiative will be co-chaired by Chad Watkins of WAS Design and Michelle Hodges of SH Enterprises.

“We all know finding a skilled and available workforce is a challenge across all industries,” said Hodges. “We’re looking to hire an experienced, qualified director of talent development and recruitment to focus day in and day out on understanding the needs of our local workforce community. With the knowledge of both immediate needs and long-term workforce needs, we’re going to work with our education communities to create training and educational pathways to meet those needs.”

The initiative seeks to provide an educated and trained workforce that will be fully prepared to enter the local workforce of our local business and industry, and to bring qualified and willing employees to our area from across the country.

“I realize how significant that sounds,” said Hodges. “It’s a huge challenge. But we stand here committed to forge the partnerships that are needed to make a difference for the community and the South Baldwin area.”


The co-chairs of the Community Betterment and Pro-Business Advocacy Initiative, Scott Shamburger, The Highland Group and Frances Holk-Jones, State Farm Insurance, were unable to attend the kick-off event. Speaking on their behalf was Tom DeBell, CEO of Riviera Utilities and immediate past chair of the Chamber Board of Directors.

“There’s a pretty large issue with infrastructure and housing and community development,” said DeBell. “They require us to come together and speak with a unified voice as businesses of South Baldwin County. We really need to be at the table with the elected officials and anyone else that’s associated with those matters, speaking together.”

The initiative members will be communicating with local businesses on matters that need to be addressed by the city, and they will be the ones to bring these improvement matters to the city for consideration. It will be their task to make sure that the message of the business community is clearly delivered to city officials.

“Just as with the other initiatives, we’ll be looking at hiring a director for this initiative,” said DeBell. “As well as these committees work, the truth is that the real work is going to be done through the director, someone who is completely focused on this one job, who will focus all their time and effort for this project and speak for the businesses.”


The co-chairs for the Existing Business Growth and Retention are Charlene Haber, Wolf Bay Restaurants & Catering and Bob Higgins, Chairman of the Coastal Resiliency Coalition.

“It just seems that we are putting a great focus on bringing new business and industry into our region by the use of large incentive packages,” said Haber. “While this promotes new development for our area, it’s hugely important that we protect the businesses that are already here and to retain the employees that we already have.”

With the assistance of Chamber Vice President Travis Valentine, the initiative will work to communicate the needs of existing businesses and employees in the area. With the understanding of the local business and industry, the Chamber will help to build programs to encourage growth in existing businesses.

“We will strengthen partnerships with local municipalities and regional organizations to define our chamber role,” said Haber. “We will also be implementing impactful programs such as a Southern Hospitality Customer Service training for all business industries in South Baldwin.”

These programs will be free of charge and will be provided through the South Baldwin Chamber. Other programs will also be implemented to promote entrepreneurship and minority business development.

“I truly believe that through the Gateway Initiative, we can all work together to keep our business and entrepreneur community strong and successful,” said Haber.


Tom DeBell will be the chairman for the Partnership and Execution Committee, which will also include all the co-chairs for the other initiatives, as well as other members.

“The good challenges that we have in this county are because we’re growing,” said DeBell. “There’s a lot of organizations working on different aspects of this, and so the partnership of this is that we want to build, to reach out to these organizations and other chambers and make sure that we meet the specific needs of our membership and our business community.”

The committee will work to be efficient by not simply duplicating efforts made by other organizations, but by bringing new ideas to the table.

For the execution side, the committee members will work to seek investments for the campaign, and to do that they want to show the results that are being delivered.

The campaign has developed a timeframe in which to accomplish goals set by each initiative, and the execution side of the committee will work to show the results of the campaign to potential investors and those who have already made an investment.

“We’ve got to be responsible,” said DeBell. “Showing that this is what we said we were going to do, and this is what we’ve done.”


Tommy Lee has put together a campaign cabinet, a group of individuals responsible for getting the word out about the Gateway Initiative, and to speak with potential investors.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, to produce a product that not only you can be proud of, but that will work,” said Lee. “One that we can move this portion of the county forward.”

A budget has been created to track the program’s success, with the goal of $250,000 a year during the 5-year campaign. The total comes to a $1.25 million campaign.

To date, the Gateway Initiative has already raised $857,398 towards their overall goal.

“This initiative is less than $450,000 away from the full 5-year funding!” Lee said. “This is a testament to those who have already stepped up to the plate and pledged their 5-year commitment … Please, ask questions, be fully involved with the questions that you have and how this is going to help you and your business, because I tell you that it truly will.”

To learn more about the Gateway Initiative, contact the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce at 251-943-3291 or visit their website at

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