“It’s just a fantastic time to be in Columbia.” That’s how Columbia Chamber President and CEO Carl Blackstone sums up the state of the capital city. Blackstone took time to talk with Midlands Anchor about the city as the Chamber prepares to honor some of the brightest stars in the Midlands business community.
The Chamber will host its 114th Annual Gala, presented by BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center at 6 p.m. Sept. 29. “The Annual Gala gives the Chamber an opportunity to celebrate the outstanding individuals in our community who elevate the Midlands and create positive change,” Blackstone said. “These honorees are the leaders in our region who work tirelessly to aid the Chamber’s mission of creating and promoting an environment where businesses can flourish.”
The Chamber’s approach to that mission has changed under Blackstone’s leadership, with the organization going through significant restructuring over the last two years. “We needed to have a better financial footing,” Blackstone explained. “The Chamber has to find its voice. It has to develop a brand within the community. We have to be relevant.”
Boyd Jones served as Chamber Chairman during the restructuring, staying for a longer term than usual as chair at the request of the board of directors because of the transition. He will end his term as chairman at the gala, handing the role to Palmetto Health President John Singerling.
Blackstone said the Chamber’s focus will now more than ever be on the future. “We’re seeing transformational change in the Midlands,” he said. “We’re in the fastest growing time we’ve ever seen in Columbia…We’ve got to capitalize on this growth and we have to grow by choice, not by chance.”
Growth, especially on the scale Columbia is experiencing, often comes with some problems, such as traffic and parking concerns. “Growing pains only come when you’re growing,” Blackstone said. He said the key to future success is “realizing you’re going to have growing pains, but dealing with them… We need to plan 5-10 years out.”
A successful first season for the Columbia Fireflies, with Spirit Communications Park winning a national ballpark of the year award and being selected to host next summer’s South Atlantic League All-Star game, has been high on the list of recent Columbia business successes, along with the growth of Main Street, with a recent push into the North Main area.
“It’s our day now in Columbia,” Blackstone said. “This is a great renaissance for the Midlands… I’m like everybody else; I’m just anxious to hear more” about new businesses opening in Columbia, he added.
Asked about his biggest goal for the next year for the Chamber, Blackstone said he wants to form a long-range plan for the city’s business community. “Where do we want to be 20 years from now?” he asked. He said the Chamber’s primary mission is simply stated: “We want to make the Midlands a better place to do business.”
“The growth we’ve seen the last 10 years in Columbia is going to be replicated in the next five,” he said. “We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball.
Blackstone said the Chamber wants input and feedback from everyone, and attempts to balance the interests of businesses of vastly different sizes by focusing on issues which affect them all.
Tickets for the gala are available now through the Chamber website. This year, the Chamber will present the prestigious Ambassador of the Year award to John W. Folsom, President and CEO of Colliers International South Carolina. In addition to his extraordinary professional career, Folsom is deeply rooted in the community, serving on the Executive Committee of the Midlands Business Leadership Group, former board member and chair of Providence Hospital and board member and founder of “Salute from the Shore.”
Also to be honored at the gala are Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin (Small & Minority Business Advocate of the Year), Ashleigh Wilson, Bowman & Brooke, LLP, (Young Professional of the Year), Steven Mungo, Mungo Homes (Military Advocate of the Year), and Mike Weaver, the Weaver Agency (Diplomat of the Year).