A Conversation with Carl Blackstone

Our President and CEO Carl Blackstone recently sat down with Alan Cooper of MidlandsBiz to discuss his ideas for the Chamber. This article is republished with permission from MidlandsBiz. See the original article on the MidlandsBiz website.

What is your education and professional background?

Carl Blackstone:
My professional background is in public policy, government relations, and strategic communications. I have worked in and around the South Carolina State House for much of my career, working as senior legislative advisor to Governor Mark Sanford, manager of state government relations for the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and a government relations advisor for the clients of Copper Dome Strategies, LLC. I graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in business administration.

How did you become the President of the Chamber?  What unique characteristics do you bring to the Chamber job?

Carl Blackstone:
My background with the State Chamber, my experience at the Governor’s Office, and my focus on public policy the last few years made me a unique candidate for the job. My career in government affairs taught me to reach across the aisle consistently and collaborate with others to make progress.

What is your leadership style?

Carl Blackstone:
My leadership style is simple: surround yourself with hardworking and innovative people, and give them a seat at the table. Everyone has something to contribute to the conversation. Once I’ve heard all the angles, I’m much better equipped to make the right decision.

How does the Chamber under your leadership differ from the Chamber under Ike McLeese’s leadership?  How has the mission of the Chamber evolved over time?  Does the mission change under your leadership?

Carl Blackstone:
Ike was a great leader and visionary for the Columbia Chamber. He was known for his love of Fort Jackson and the military, and was the face of business in the Midlands. While it is important for us to respect and glean lessons from the past, I hope to take the Chamber in a slightly different direction. Our biggest focus will be making the Midlands more business-friendly through an enhanced public policy program.

The Columbia Chamber’s mission will remain the same: to create and promote an environment where businesses can flourish. We will continue to provide valuable networking opportunities, professional development, and small business workshops. In the next several years, however, we will be looking at how we can affect change at the city, county, and state level through our advocacy efforts.

What are the Top Three issues facing the Chamber in 2015? What is new and exciting at the Chamber under your leadership?

Carl Blackstone:
We recently underwent a major rebranding, which you’ll see in publications, on all of our social media channels, and on billboards throughout the area. The idea behind our new brand, “Partners for a Greater Columbia,” is bringing Chamber businesses together with a common vision and idea: to create and promote an environment where businesses can flourish. We now reference our members as “partners,” reinforcing the idea that we’re all in this together. The Columbia Chamber is only as strong as our partners, and we intend to serve as their united voice in our community and government.

A lot of our exciting changes have happened behind the scenes – we have a new website, we’re transitioning to a new database, and we’ve been focused on putting more structure in place internally while implementing new technologies. All of these changes will help the Columbia Chamber operate at an optimal level to better serve our partners.

Of course, we’ll continue to provide networking opportunities, professional development, and business training. Our mission remains the same, but we will be enhancing the advocacy piece of the equation so we can give even more value to our partners. Our biggest focus will be ramping up our public policy initiatives. We’re drafting position statements and a legislative agenda. We’ve been sitting down with our partners over the last several months, and our main priorities for 2015 will be transportation, workforce development, and tax policy.

Our guiding principle is simple: we will support legislation that will help the region to attract new quality business, industry and jobs, help entrepreneurs create new businesses, and help the region retain and grow existing business and industry. With reference to transportation and infrastructure, we recognize that without the ability to move goods and services to customers, businesses cannot compete and succeed. We will advocate for investment in and maintenance of modern road, airport, rail and other infrastructure required for the region to effectively compete in the global marketplace.

Developing a highly-skilled and well-educated workforce is critical for increasing job opportunities for our region’s citizens and securing long-term growth for business. We will advocate for necessary changes in early childhood, K-12 and higher education to prepare our students for the careers of the future.

Another priority will be advocating for a tax climate that is conducive to business expansion. We’ll be looking into local taxation and lowering the cost of doing business in the Midlands so that our region’s tax structure is competitive with neighboring regions and states.

What are some of the roadblocks to advancing this strategy?

Carl Blackstone:
As with any advocacy effort, there are opportunities to bring differing viewpoints and new faces to the table. I think the Columbia Chamber is better equipped for this role now than it ever has been, and our partners are eager to see some positive change in the business community that will affect their bottom lines. The key to moving our region forward, however, is getting people from all sides of an issue to sit down and have frank discussion about where we’re headed.

What is the business model for the Chamber?  How does it make money?

Carl Blackstone:
The Columbia Chamber is a non-profit association. We get our support from our partners. The Midlands business community realizes that the sum is greater than the parts, and through partnership, they can have a stronger voice in the community. Our business partners also support us through our programs, events, and initiatives.

Talk about the Good to Great Campaign.  Where does this program stand?

Carl Blackstone:
When the Good to Great foundation was formed eight years ago, the idea was to create a dialogue throughout the Midlands. We’ve been very successful in partnering with Randy Halfacre of the Lexington Chamber of Commerce and working with other regional chambers through the Midstate Chamber Coalition. Another part of Good to Great focuses on the military presence we have in central South Carolina – and there’s no doubt that we’ve been very successful on that end. Our goal moving forward is to continue that mission of broadening our regional focus. The Good to Great foundation knows that what’s good on one side of the river is good for the other. We’re seeking to answer the question, “How can the Midlands region speak with a stronger, more unified voice?”


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