Chamber Summit Goes High Tech

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An attendee uses a wireless device to weigh in on economic conditions.

An attendee uses a wireless device to weigh in on economic conditions.
An attendee uses a wireless device to weigh in on economic conditions.

Optimism among Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce members is a bit harder to come by this year, as revealed in a survey unveiled at the Chamber’s Economic Summit IV.  Subtitled, “It’s all about the Economy,” attendees at Hotel Roanoke earlier this week also heard about economic trends – some more promising than others – from Dr. Terry Rephann, from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Justice at UVa.

Rephann joked about the overly-rosy forecast he gave two years ago, the last time he appeared at the annual Chamber summit, but noted that many others had it wrong also just before the economy took a nosedive.  Attendees were able to weigh in during Rephann’s presentation via hand held devices that registered responses to questions about the economy and their company profile.

Rephann addressed the “free fall” in housing values nationally, noting Roanoke did not suffer the full brunt, and the “gigantic credit crunch,” that has slowed recovery efforts, despite the “enormous sum of [money],” being pumped into the financial system.

Local and national retail sales have “tanked,” and unemployment has descended on Virginia like “a dark cloud,” since last fall. Still, in many ways, this recession is not as deep as others in the past, said Rephann.

U.S. Congressman Bob Goodlatte appeared via webcam from Washington, airing his concerns about the amount of money being spent in Washington, and fielding questions from the audience. The 6th District lawmaker looks for interest rates and inflation to spike in the years ahead as the result of the spending spree in DC.  With a $3.6 trillion budget forecasted for the next fiscal year, one third of it borrowed, Goodlatte said he “had concern for the direction our government is taking.”

The Republican began by noting that some stimulus money is on the way to Roanoke for non-profits and construction projects including weatherization, but he questioned $51 million allocated for an update of the Poff Federal Building in downtown Roanoke. Goodlatte said it might be more cost effective to build a new one.

The latest chamber member survey reveals lower levels of optimism regarding economic growth compared to a year ago.  From the 150 or so respondents, sales positions were identified as the most needed, with 35% expecting to grow their work force in 2009. That’s down 11% from 2008.

Of the respondents, 27% expect revenue increases this year, while 41% forecast a decrease – numbers reversed from last year’s projections. Still, 81% of those polled called the Roanoke Region’s economic climate “fair to good.”

Also unveiled was a joint program from the Regional Chamber and the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition, a green initiative that will give local businesses a chance to be branded as “green business stewards.” The Cool Cities Coalition will develop a checklist including guidelines for water use, waste disposal, indoor air quality, pollution control and energy use.

“It is still a major competitive advantage to take waste out of the system,” said Diana Christopulos, chair of the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition.

A third party will verify the qualifications of those firms seeking the green branding. Christopulos noted the Japanese “made poverty a virtue” after World War II and learned to manufacture with less waste produced – a lesson some American companies are still learning today. Christopulos also cited the “unanimous commitments” local governments have made regarding reducing their carbon footprints.

Those that meet the green criteria will be featured in the Chamber’s quarterly business magazine and will be given a special designation.

“Just one more element that helps position our region as a great place to live, work and play,“ said Chamber president Joyce Waugh, who added that most members seemed “cautiously optimistic” about the near future.

Cool Cities and the Chamber will roll out a pilot program with 10 selected companies this summer, and hope to offer it to other businesses this fall. Still to be decided on is a name for the campaign. The finalists are: Green Biz Approved, Earth Friendly, Roanoke Region Worthy, Cool Green Biz, Go Green Roanoke Region and Green Seal of Happiness.

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