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Mid-year Chamber banquet highlights workforce, economic issues amid COVID-19
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Mid-year Chamber banquet highlights workforce, economic issues amid COVID-19

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During Wednesday’s Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce Mid-Year Meeting, discussion revolved around local and state economic vitality amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While attendees enjoyed lunch at socially distanced tables, new chamber President and CEO Drew Kamp spoke of the importance of keeping local business relevant during trying times.

Some of his focal points heading into the latter part of the year, he said, include promoting workforce development, business retention/expansion and bolstering public policy.

“The advocacy arm — advocacy is one of the biggest things that a chamber can do,” said Kamp, who took over the business organization’s helm seven weeks ago. “And if you do it effectively, it’s such a critical piece of our overall organization.

“Whether that’s at the local City Council, county supervisors, state, federal or even sometimes getting into international, it’s all about assisting them (businesses) with anything they need on advocacy pieces.”

In regard to creating a strong business climate, leaders are needed, Kamp said. One segment of the meeting was dedicated to recognizing the most recent graduates of the Leadership Council Bluffs program.

The program is designed to identify and develop potential community leaders, to enhance their leadership skills with greater knowledge of the community, its history, its challenges and its successes, Kamp said.

There have been more than 650 Leadership Council Bluffs graduates over more than three decades which continue serving on committees, boards, commissions, public office and as volunteers in the greater Council Bluffs area, he added.

This year’s graduates were: Robert Ahrens, Centris Federal Credit Union; Chad Bartlett, Council Bluffs Community Schools District, currently working at Green Hill AEA; Ramon Calzada, Centro Latino of Iowa; Mallory Davis, City of Council Bluffs; Cole Epley, Boyd Jones; Alicia Frieze, Council Bluffs Convention & Visitors Bureau, currently working at the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce; Tim Galligan, Iowa Western Foundation; Kimberly Henry, Iowa Western Community College; Shalimar Mazetis, Advance Southwest Iowa Corporation; Jamie Neelon, US Bank; Chris Peterson, Boys & Girls Club of Council Bluffs; Joseph Poore, Methodist Jennie Edmundson; Sara Porter, Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, Ambassador Real Estate, formerly with Heartland Properties; Jodi Quakenbush, City of Council Bluffs; Melanie Smith, Warren Distribution; Bridgette Watson, Council Bluffs Schools Foundation; Kerry Wiles, Heartland Family Service; David Wise, TS Bank; Bill Wypyski, All Care Health Center; Cheryl Clark, Children’s Square U.S.A.; Lisa Gronstal, CHI Health Mercy Council Bluffs; Jamie Ruppert, Council Bluffs Public Library.

Following recognition of the Leadership Council Bluffs graduates, keynote speaker Beth Townsend spoke about the current workforce environment at the state level. Townsend serves as the director of Iowa Workforce Development, one of the agencies Kamp said works arm-in-arm with the local chamber.

Townsend said Iowa’s unemployment rate as of July — the most recent available figures — was 6.6%. This equated to more than 107,000 state residents out of work. But, she said that there were more than 60,500 job openings as of Monday on IowaWORKS’ website, which she noted is encouraging.

As with other states, the coronavirus pandemic has heavily affected business and employment opportunities. More unemployment claims have been filed in the past six months than in recent history.

“We’ve paid $881 million out of the trust fund since the beginning of March,” Townsend said. “That’s almost double what we would (normally) pay during any calendar year.

“… Hopefully we will never see anything like this again in our lifetime, because, certainly, it’s not the number of claims or the number of benefits that we would ever expect to pay out in a year, much less over a six-month period of time.”

She added, though, one major plus being seen: between 5,000 and 6,000 Iowans cutting ties with unemployment benefits weekly.

“That’s a good sign,” Townsend said.

Kamp said that Townsend was a solid, relevant choice to serve as the event’s keynote.

“We really work with two state agencies predominately, that’s Iowa Economic Development Authority … and Iowa Workforce Development, which is Beth Townsend and her staff,” he said. “We work a lot with them.

“… Not only are they (IWD) a critical partner, unemployment is one of their biggest apparatuses that they oversee in their operation, and that’s been such a huge issue since the pandemic started. We wanted to give her to the opportunity to come and talk through some of the things that they’ve experienced since the pandemic started.”

Overall, Kamp said he was pleased with his first large-scale meeting as leader of the chamber. It served as an avenue to gather residents — all of whom wore masks when not eating or sitting at their tables — and educate them about some pressing issues both locally and statewide.

Understanding these issues enables communities like Council Bluffs to evolve and grow.

And the Bluffs is primed for more economic development, he said.

“There’s a lot of areas that are ripe for growth,” Kamp said. “There’s short-term planning, mid-term and long-term planning happening at the community level.

“And that’s so important because you can’t just look at the current here and now, or short term, you have to look long term if you want to make the community what you truly want it to be.”

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