Spilling your guts
If you are a member of the Blair County Chamber, today officially begins your opportunity to tell us what a lousy job we’re doing. Lucky you. As part of the Chamber’s Strategic Business Plan we are issuing not one but two surveys to our members. The first is a Membership Satisfaction Survey which identifies programs, events, benefits, common practices and organizational attitudes that the Chamber is already offering and asking if you love them, hate them or are somewhere in-between. The second survey, which will be rolled out in September, puts the onus on the members to identify things that they’d like to see the Chamber doing instead-of or in addition-to what we’re doing now. It can be anything with the exception of replacing dues and sponsorships with beer drinking contests and bus trips to Rocky Gap. But first things first. The Membership Satisfaction Survey is only ten questions and in true Survey Monkey form provides multiple choice options that will either make you confident in your answer or make you wish that the survey was true or false instead. You will be asked to determine the relative merits of golden oldies like Breakfast Club and Business After Hours. That’s just the beginning. Should the Chamber get more or less involved in political advocacy? Do we give too many awards or too few? Are things like sustainability, workplace wellness and data security important enough to commit time and resources to? Should knuckleheads like Joe Hurd be allowed to write newspaper columns on behalf of the organization? We’re hoping that members will take the time to share their thoughts on issues that we too often assume they’re embracing. I had one member tell me that he hadn’t been to a Breakfast Club since the time Bud Shuster talked about “that highway.” He hadn’t come back since he never really liked the eggs at the Ramada. We moved the Breakfast Club to The Casino eighteen years ago. The challenge with surveys, especially as a membership organization, is that many of our members will realize that they don’t really know enough about the Chamber to comment on what is relevant and what is no longer beneficial. As a result, we’re initiating informational programs to encourage them to see what they’ve been missing. Chamber members who haven’t received the first survey by email can access it at www.blairchamber.com
Last Tuesday, the Altoona Mirror ran a story on its front page by Bill Kibler announcing “County Health Survey coming.” The headline itself was prominent and even had a bit of an ominous feel to it. Health, it seems, has developed connotations of more than one kind.
The Healthy Blair County Coalition, headed by Coleen Heim, was created to fulfill a requirement of the Affordable Care Act. This project began in 2007 with the first Community Health Needs Assessment. In 2012, all non-profit hospitals were not only mandated to conduct a similar assessment but also to develop an intervention plan to meet those community health needs.
They had a big job ahead of them. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which does health rankings of every county in the country, ranked Blair County as the 63rd healthiest county in Pennsylvania. In a state with 67 counties, we had little to brag about.
The survey results spit-out the details. We had considerable problems with alcohol and drug use, obesity, poverty, mental health issues, smoking and even bad teeth. Otherwise, as the old joke goes, we were nearly perfect.
Coleen Heim didn’t despair. Through her efforts, which included assembling committees, task forces, and focus groups, meaningful discussions took place that ultimately led to initiatives that systematically addressed each of the health-related challenges. One of those committees – Workplace Wellness – was started by the Chamber at Heim’s urging and continues to direct attention to the importance of employers encouraging their employees to pursue healthy lifestyles.
From 63rd, Blair County is now ranked 39th, which Heim admitted might be slightly misleading.
“There are a number of factors that change some of the indicators,” she noted. “But the reality is that we’re doing better in most categories and it’s great that so many people are spreading the message and so many others are getting it.”
There are still some outliers. I passed a man in the hallway at the Blair Regional YMCA a few days ago who was wearing a t-shirt that on one side said, “I’m into fitness” and on the other side said, “Fit’ness whole burrito in my mouth.”
The struggle continues. Later this week, surveys will be mailed to 3,000 random households in the county. In addition, surveys will be emailed to key leaders, service providers and associations. Anyone wanting to complete the survey can do so on the HBCC Website.
There’s a Greek Proverb that goes like this: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Rex Kaup was a tree planter. Fred Imler and Bill Thompson were too. Within the last two years, we lost all three of them.
Although it has never been officially established as a group or club or association, the eighteen recipients of the Chamber’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Business Excellence have a connection that goes well beyond simply sharing a special night and a glass obelisk.
Rex Kaup’s recent passing only brought it to the forefront one more time. As a grieving business community spoke with near reverence for the kindheartedness and civic altruism that made Rex special, it had quite a familiar ring to it. I’m sure I heard those same sentiments, or something very close, about Fred Imler. About Bill Thompson and Tim Sissler and Don Devorris. About Ernie Wissinger, the award’s first recipient.
Pity that it takes death to remind people how important someone was in life.
There is little doubt that the term Business Excellence carries a high degree of subjectivity. Most people will tell you that they know it when they see it but too often the eye-test only lends itself to controversy. The “tree planters” in the Greek Proverb have possibly unearthed the closest thing to a common denominator. Validation should take no more than a glance at a person’s legacy.
When I think of the eighteen award recipients I come to two conclusions. Every one of them fits the tree planter definition and Ann Benzel would not be enamored with being described as one of the Proverb’s “old men.”
In October, Mark Barnhart, Owner and Chairman of the Board of NPC, will be the 19th recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Business Excellence. Mark has the distinction of being the only honoree to be selected one year and honored the next. Covid-19 changed a lot of plans.
Consider this: Last September, Mark and his company donated 140 laptop computers to the Claysburg-Kimmel School District to help students impacted by the pandemic to be able to learn virtually. That act of generosity is consistent with the dozens of similar things that NPC does without regard to short-term recognition.
Do you think Mark Barnhart understands the importance of planting trees?
(Joe Hurd is President/CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce)
Oblivious no more
Last Friday around noon, I pulled into the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant in Altoona and was surprised to see that I was the only car in line. As I pulled-up to place my order, I noticed a sign on the window announcing that the restaurant was closed due to “unavoidable circumstances.” Those circumstances, I later learned, were due to insufficient staffing.
I’ve shared that experience with a number of people in the local hospitality industry and they were amazed. Not amazed that a business had closed for lack of employees. Amazed that I was apparently out-of-the-loop on what has gradually been taking place, not just in hospitality, but throughout the business community.
I felt like Rip Van Winkle. While I was continuing to fight the battle to allow more businesses to reopen at full customer capacity, the other shoe was preparing to drop.
“We waited so long to get back to operating at close to normal levels,” a restaurant owner told me, “and now we’ve got no one to work.” Many restaurants have cut hours to more effectively utilize the employees they have. It is also not uncommon to be greeted at the front door of a hospitality business by a sign requesting patience within the realm of customer service.
So who’s to blame for all this? You can point your finger in a number of directions. The fact that the Unemployment Compensation system has made it more profitable to stay at home than to work gets most of the invective. In reality though, we’re past the point of looking for scapegoats. It’s time to look for solutions.
The Chamber’s Public Policy Committee will be taking the lead in creating a strategy to ascertain just how many businesses are struggling, their short-term staffing needs and other challenges that are making life difficult. From the staffing standpoint, it’s important to remember that workforce issues carried high importance prior to the pandemic. The Chamber will be announcing a new initiative within a few weeks to begin addressing long-term approaches on a regional scale.
The Blair County business community holds the key to our future growth and our quality of life. Our workforce is the heart and soul of that community. We’ve got to stay alert (and awake!) to confront the obstacles ahead.
(Joe Hurd is President/CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce)
The numbers never lie
I am not a numbers guy. Every math teacher that has ever been exposed to my mathematical wizardry has suggested that I avoid all career choices that might require me to count.
Data, however, does fascinate me enough to draw conclusions that actually seem reasonable. When you’re looking for validation, there’s no better feeling than to throw some big numbers at your harshest critics and have them nod approvingly. “Confuse them when you can” was something that Mark Twain would have said if he was running a chamber of commerce.
I am fortunate enough to have a staff replete with people who can count and who have a high degree of credibility. When they provide me with data, it’s the real stuff. They often go into great detail about its value, hoping that I won’t distort it. They understand that my biggest source of frustration, even after twenty-three years, remains the fact that not all Blair County businesses are Chamber members. So they ply me with information that supports my point-of-view and then they cross their fingers. The perils of uncertainty are really not for the faint of heart.
What I received from our Marketing and Membership staff recently was a statistical analysis of what our Chamber accomplished during 2019. In a few cases, like Leadership Blair County, the numbers were a compilation that included previous years to show the incredible level of participation enjoyed by that program. So let me throw some hard numbers in your direction:
You can count on that.
Heading to 2020 with my hair on fire!
Sometimes the hardest part of writing this column is coming-up with an appropriate title. My original title for this one was “Heading to 2020 with a sense of urgency.” I was sure that I could do better. The title above indicates that I was mistaken.
For the record, my hairline could sustain an actual fire for about five seconds. You’d have better luck lighting my eyebrows.
My point in all this is that I’m looking forward to 2020 with a high degree of optimism, despite the fact that I live in a country preparing to undertake a presidential election that promises to be dreadful. It’s incredibly unfortunate that our political process at the federal level has deteriorated to the degree that the only real thing that we all have in common is that we hope it ends soon.
Moving on, I have identified a few things that will impact the Chamber, its members and the Blair County business community during the months ahead.
On behalf of the Chamber, I wish you a happy holiday season and eagerly anticipate (with smoldering hair) a great 2020!
In the 24-years that the Leadership Blair County program has been helping with the professional development of people in the business and education communities, it has also been helping to make the overall community better. Each class establishes a rallying-point around a project that in some meaningful way makes a difference, either helping a non-profit organization to do something better or creating an amenity that helps the county put its best foot forward.
It’s hardly a new concept, according to former Blair County Commissioner Donna Gority who was on the original planning committee that created Leadership Blair County.
“True servant leaders are also good community stewards,” Gority pointed out. “The class project was more than just a team building exercise. It helped each class define who they are and what type of legacy they would leave.”
Their legacies have made a monumental difference in so many tangible ways.
The most recent LBC class, which graduated in June raised money for Evolution Expressions’ Arts for Healing program. The program uses art, dancing and music therapy to help children cope with traumatic experiences. Through a number of fundraisers that included restaurant nights, a Zumbathon and a 200-Club cash bash, the class was able to buy new art supplies, instruments and a wall-length mirror and rubber flooring for the Zumba room. That’s not all. Additional funds financed not only arts-related field trips but the 14-passenger van that will transport them there.
“We believed that this was a worthy cause because there are local youths coping with some truly rough times,” explained class member Mandy Murphy. “We knew that Evolution Expressions was doing what it could to make a difference but really didn’t have the means, as a relatively new organization, to do more. It was wonderful to be able to help.”
Craig Clark, Evolution’s Vice-President and co-owner, heartily agreed.
“The LBC Class of 2018 communicated and shared our passion to help a part of Blair County’s population that is most in need of services,” Clark acknowledged. “This class can best be described as a talented, hard-working group of individuals who worked together as a team to meet their mission. And for that, we are very grateful.”
In 2017, the LBC class took-on a similar project. Working with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Blair County, the class raised funds to enable every child involved with BBBS to receive a new bicycle, helmet, lock and safety training. In addition, they were able to completely remodel the basement of the BBBS building, adding a handicap accessible ramp and door, a new bathroom, floors, paint, lighting and tools to enable the kids to work on their bikes when they needed fixed. A new trailer was also purchased to transfer the kids and their bikes to all the exciting trails and parks in Blair County.
“The project was a lot of work but the day that the kids actually picked out their new bikes and rode them for the first time was truly a rewarding moment for our class,” remembers Jackie Lantzy. “Aside from the benefits to the kids, the project brought us together as a group. Everyone was able to help out in some meaningful way.”
Class member Rachel Prosser was happy to experience the feeling that a person gets after a job well done.
“Just knowing that our time, effort and resources were going to youth in our community was all the incentive that we needed,” Prosser disclosed. “Just knowing that these young people felt cared-about was tremendous.”
The 2016 LBC Class renovated the gymnasium and recreation room used by The Beacon at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Altoona. That involved installing a network of ten security cameras, monitor and a control center; replacing lights and fixtures with energy efficient lighting and installing a new exhaust fan; and repairing and painting everywhere it was needed.
The Beacon provides youth with a safe environment and structured activities led by supportive adult role models. Through a daily after-school program, youth receive mentoring, tutoring, homework research tools and employment preparation support.
“Throughout the project, our class often applied the teamwork and servant leadership skills that we learned in the LBC program,” stated class member Diana McClure. “We gained the satisfaction derived from being part of a team that practiced servant leadership in ways that provided a good example to the The Beacon program’s youth and we hope our project inspired them to look for ways in which they can make a positive impact in their community.”
The renovations at The Beacon were far from revolutionary. In fact the previous year, the 2015 LBC class did a similar project at “The Door” in Bellwood. An after-school program that attracts many young people who often have difficult home circumstances, The Door provides a safe place for students to do school work, interact and receive what for many of them is the only hot dinner meal of the week.
“Our project was to remodel and upgrade the kitchen at The Door,” said class member Walter Goffart. “This included purchasing some new appliances, putting up drywall, painting, trim work and installing cabinets. It felt so good to watch a committed group of people – our class – pulling together for such a worthwhile cause. People talk about servant leadership. We had a chance to experience it for the benefit of others.”
Of all the common experiences that graduates of the Leadership Blair County program have had, perhaps none has been as enduring as the projects to which each class can independently hang-its-hat. There have been 24 classes. There have been 24 projects. We have described only the most recent four. Suffice it to say, the other twenty are just as special and have made significant impact.
“There is much about the LBC program of which we are proud,” Donna Gority emphasized. “The really great thing is that there is much more to come.”
(For more information on the Leadership Blair County program, contact the Blair County Chamber at 814-943-8151 or visit the Chamber Website at www.blairchamber.com.)
Sharon Green has accomplished considerable success in teaching yoga because she allocates much of her time to learning as much as possible about the many health benefits that yoga offers. The 57-year-old owner/teacher at Bloom Yoga & Wellness in Altoona, Green has a BS Degree in Education from Penn State Altoona, has a 500-hour Professional Level Kripalu Yoga Teacher Certification and is a Licensed Massage Therapist.
The Chamber: How did Bloom Yoga & Wellness come about and why did you feel that this type of business would be successful here?
Sharon: I purchased Bloom Yoga & Wellness from Andrea Young in 2011 after she moved us to Downtown Altoona. It was her inspiration and desire to provide our community with a Yoga centered wellness studio offering a different focus and experience than the fitness center environment. I already had an established yoga student base who were committed to their yoga practice and supportive of me taking this leap. I wanted to continue teaching and learning in a personalized, peaceful and cozy environment. With my extensive movement and anatomy background, Bloom provides an opportunity to teach smaller classes while utilizing my professional gifts to serve individual needs as well as the group. Our classes are done in 8 week series so we can get to know our students and not have a revolving door environment.
The Chamber: What would people in Blair County be surprised to know about Bloom Yoga & Wellness?
Sharon: We offer Yoga Dance that blends yoga and dance movements to a variety of music. No dance or yoga experience is necessary to enjoy this energizing class ended with a peaceful relaxation. Classes are also offered for Adult/Child combinations. It is rare to find Yoga Dance offered outside of metropolitan area. Thanks to our teacher Tracey Roth it is offered in our community. We are also the folks that provide FREE Yoga On the Beach “YOB” each summer at Canoe Creek State Park near the swimming area on Saturday mornings, 9-10:00.
The Chamber: You’re currently working on creating some events to enhance the appreciation of yoga and wellness. Can you describe one of those?
Sharon: We are bringing an international senior Kripalu Yoga teacher, Rudy Pierce to Altoona in 2018, 2019, and 2020 for Dynamic Gentle Yoga Teacher Training and some classes open to the public! I’m still pinching myself that this is happening!!! Rudy is a sweet soul and gracious yoga teacher trainer with at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
The Chamber: Wellness has become a popular buzzword in practically every venture that involves lifestyle. In what tangible ways are yoga and wellness connected?
Sharon : One of my mentors called yoga the “ultimate multi-tasking”. As we take care of ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally through the practice of yoga, it not only serves us on the mat, but permeates throughout our lives. Yoga shares movement, meditation, mindfulness, breathing and relaxation techniques, which all nourish and cleanse our whole being.
The Chamber: How do you measure success among your students?
Sharon: I measure success among my students, who are also my teachers, by the changes I am blessed to witness not only physically but more importantly by their overall sense of mindful presence. Most meaningful is the changes they discover off the mat as to how the yoga shows up positively throughout their lives such as: peace and clarity of mind, coordination and balance, consciously preparing and focusing during physical or mental activities, flexibility and strength, less judgmental thoughts of themselves and others, being lighter hearted and playful, etc.
The Chamber: What’s still on Sharon Green’s “bucket list?”
Sharon: Professionally, in the next few years I hope to complete the 1000 hour Professional Level Kripalu Teacher Training in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which is the largest international yoga teaching center in North America. Side note to those who think they can’t do yoga -- Kripalu means Compassion. There are different strokes “yoga ” for different folks. Personally, I hope to bicycle the “Ride of Your Life” consisting of the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC (332 miles).
Discovery in Des Moines
Bob Layo is a friend of mine. For three decades, he served as President/CEO of the Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber until he just couldn’t take it anymore. “My motivation to do the programs and events that we did practically every year was gone,” he told me. “It was time to move on.”
I’ve heard similar comments from colleagues who have only been in the chamber business a few years. Chamber management can be a balancing act between meeting member expectations and convincing non-members of the importance of coming onboard. Both are challenges that bring satisfaction and frustration, hardly ever in equal measure.
Much like the school year, our Chamber moves into high-gear in late August and goes strong until mid-June. July is our catch-up month, a chance to assess where we are in relationship to our budget and our annual goals. It’s a time to breathe. And wherever possible, it’s a time for exploration and discovery. Last month, I was provided the opportunity to explore and discover.
The Pennsylvania Association of Chamber Professionals (PACP) is an organization to which we have belonged since its inception. Each year, PACP awards scholarships to members who apply to attend either the PACP Conference or the annual conference of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE). I applied for the ACCE scholarship and was notified in the spring that my application was accepted.
I am guessing that my scholarship from PACP was based less on my status in the chamber community than it was on the fact that the conference was being held in Des Moines. Who could possibly resist Iowa in July? Surprisingly, the conference attracted more than 1,000 people from throughout the country. I suspect that might have been because the chamber industry is undoubtedly in flux. Staying relevant is a standard that many chambers are failing to meet. Consequently, their membership numbers are dropping. It’s difficult to turn the ship in the other direction once the tide has shifted.
With the vast array of educational sessions from which to choose at ACCE, I found myself focused on the three topics that seem to have the greatest sense of urgency for our Chamber – workforce development, membership retention and young professionals. I was hardly alone. In all but two of the sessions I had to stand against the wall, despite arriving early. The seats were all filled.
The workforce development discussions had a common theme: Job availability without the requisite number of qualified candidates to fill those jobs. To the larger cities, that meant accessing greater numbers of training dollars and the hope for a favorable resolution to immigration legislation. To smaller cities, it came down to doing more with less and finding creative ways to entice its young people to embrace careers closer to home.
From the membership retention side, the most beneficial sessions were the best practices ones where chambers readily shared how they were re-inventing themselves so that they no longer looked like chambers of commerce. To no one’s surprise, those discussions bled-over to animated exchanges on how young professionals were the “fly-in-the-ointment” of business prosperity. Thankfully, the two sessions that I attended on engaging young professionals provided solid examples of how several chambers had figured-out ways to recognize and appreciate the many assets that young professionals bring to the table. I’m looking forward to finding more of that common ground with our own young professionals program.
In all, my trip to Des Moines was enriching and even enjoyable. The people in Des Moines are friendly and the city is clean, safe and welcoming. I’m grateful to PACP for providing the spark that has allowed me to re-charge my battery and I look forward to carrying my enthusiasm to our Chamber staff so that they, too, will be invigorated for the task ahead.
We have many things to accomplish during the remainder of 2018. We invite our business community to be an integral part of the process.
An idea that was long overdue
There’s a Chinese proverb that advises that a person who says that something can’t be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it. In business and in education, we are routinely strangled by our reluctance to venture too far from what we know. In the name of tradition, we continue to embrace concepts that are ultimately detrimental to our individual or community growth.
It happens everywhere and it happens often. Which is why what took place on May 31st at the graduation ceremonies at Hollidaysburg Area High School was such a breath of fresh air.
Like most school districts, Hollidaysburg’s graduation event featured a standard agenda that culminated in the conferring of diplomas to its graduates. The early part of the agenda, as always, included speeches from the valedictorian and salutatorian of the senior class.
But Hollidaysburg, for the first time, included a third speaker. That speaker, Delaney Clemens, was the outstanding Hollidaysburg senior at the Greater Altoona Career & Technology Center. Like valedictorian Rohan Gupta and salutatorian Alexandra Kaplan, Clemens’ speech was inspirational and well-delivered. Unlike theirs, however, she spoke of her academic struggles and attendance difficulties prior to signing-up for classes at the GACTC.
“I needed to find my passion,” Clemens admitted. “Once I did, things changed completely.”
One of the greatest injustices in the educational panorama of Blair County is the enduring stigma associated with career and technical education. The GACTC has borne the brunt of criticism that it’s little more than a haven for “throwaway students” who simply clog the educational machine.
Those who know the truth recognize that it’s futile to spend time or energy disputing value with people who have already made up their minds. Instead, the emphasis has been on creating opportunities for students who have willingly exited the academic mainstream in favor of career paths that align with their interests and talents. And yes, their passions.
If you think that’s only good for the GACTC students, think again. It is well-documented that Blair County’s economic future is heavily tied to its ability to meet the workforce needs of current businesses as well as ones that may choose to settle here. The projections are, to be honest, dismal. By 2025, it’s estimated that more than 7,000 jobs in Blair County will need to be filled. Many of those jobs will require the education and skills that are the hallmark of the GACTC.
As the GACTC continues the work of preparing students for future employment, there is the disconcerting reality that those of us in the workforce development arena have a lot of rabbits to pull out of a very small hat. How we deal with the perception that our local school districts are doing an exceptional job preparing our young people to leave raises the ante considerably. The clock is ticking.
Our hope is that more districts will follow Hollidaysburg’s lead and recognize the incredible impact that our county has already experienced from those who have chosen to make the GACTC part of their educational experience.
It’s a lot more than just a good idea.
Joe Hurd is President/CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce.