By Matt Ledger
Larry Durham, who grew up in southeast Madison County and now owns Durham Service Company, Inc., recognized local entrepreneurs could benefit from a dose of teamwork. “There was no vehicle here for businesses to come together to express concerns to the government, and there were no networking opportunities.”
So, Durham, along with some other business owners in the community, decided to form the Southeast Madison County Business Association (SEMCBA) one week after a conversation with Allen Paseur a retired teacher and football coach at New Hope High School, who owns Paseur Farms.
The 4-year-old SEMCBA has 50 members, including community leaders, educators and individuals. Membership fees are $125 for businesses and $25 for individuals.
Once the group formed, members contacted state Senator Clay Scofield for help. “He wants to work with this community because we are on the edge of his district,” Durham says. “He donated money to help get us off the ground.” Scofield provided TVA funds that are allocated to him to use in his district for business development projects.
The grass-roots organization sponsors outreach events in the community — most recently an open house. “In the last year, we’ve really tried to focus on how we can shine a light on our community,” SEMCBA President Joseph Conwell says. He’s served in that post for the past two years, after Durham held the post for the first two years. The group will be nominating and electing new officers in January.
The association emphasizes the improved graduation rates at New Hope High School, as well as other advances at Owens Cross Roads and New Hope Elementary Schools.
“Our area has gotten a bad rap over time because we’re rural, so sometimes people think our schools aren’t as good. The statistics don’t prove that. NHHS’ numbers are climbing, and we’ve seen dramatic improvements in recent years,” Conwell says.
Their group wanted to emphasize the statistics to realtors, who can boost growth in the area. “We sponsored an open house for all of the area realtors to come and see the schools. The principals even gave a presentation and discussed several topics with the realtors who came to the event,” Durham says.
SEMCBA is always looking for new opportunities to partner with local organizations. Meetings are the second Monday of each month, alternating between the Owens Cross Roads and New Hope town halls. At most meetings, mayors are present, as well as County Commissioner Eddie Sisk. Often, school principals attend.
“Where else can you go and have an open forum to discuss issues with that many elected leaders under one roof? I think it’s a good thing a lot of people don’t know about,” Conwell says.
While the organization hopes to emphasize the success of the schools, there is also a benefit for educators to understand the needs of businesses. “We wanted to work with local government to give business folks in this area a voice, and to let schools understand what the needs are of the business community,” Durham says.
Similarly, the association works to inform many of the area’s business owners about available resources. “I’m surprised how many people live here and don’t know what services are available to them,” Durham says.
The association firmly believes that growth is on its way and local businesses are helping pave the way. “At NHTC, we believe in investing in our communities through economic development,” says NHTC General Manager Jim Cook, also a member of SEMCBA. “We are currently doing a 100 percent buildout of replacing copper with fiber.”
This buildout allows businesses, along with residences, to take advantage of NHTC’s state-of-the-art fiber connectivity and as much bandwidth as they need. “The infrastructure is here to support whatever growth desires to come this way,” Cook says.
Communication for growth
The organization also has an open line of communication with state government. An original member of SEMCBA, Ritchie Whorton was elected as House District 22 State Representative.
Whorton is the owner of All Star Pools Inc, and was instrumental in marketing and growing the SEMCBA membership. “The community made a great decision in electing Ritchie; he’s doing a great job. He stepped out and became a leader of this freshman class,” Durham says. “Whorton’s presence in the state legislature places the entire community in a positive light.”
And, along with local lawmakers, several politicians have come up from Montgomery to meet with the group. “We’re starting to get collaboration. That’s what it takes. Business and government have to work together for a community to grow,” Durham says.