By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor
What is the role of a chamber of commerce in a community?
Most people would agree that it's a vehicle to promote local business, attempt to bring economic success into its area, and enhance the community it serves. Some chambers might dip their foot into the political pool (or maybe dive in), but in general, it's about economic and business development.
But what if a chamber looked beyond that typical model? How much good could it do if it expanded to a larger, more diverse scope? What if they took on social issues with the same vigor it typically reserves for the business class? What if the problems that ordinary citizens face were the same ones the chamber looked to eradicate?
“Cate’s diverse background certainly appealed to what we were looking for as we redefine how a chamber of commerce entwines with the larger community,”
--Tim Clark, Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman
What if they aggressively advocated for better healthcare and affordable housing? What if they took on food deserts and food insecurity in underserved neighborhoods?
Perhaps Apopka is about to find out the answers to these questions.
With its selection of Cate Manley as the new President/CEO of the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce, it looks as though this 108-year-old institution might be signaling a change in its direction and may be leaning-in to those challenges.
And despite a short time on the job, Manley is already seeing a forward path for the area.
“From my view, the Apopka area is poised to truly reach its potential in the next few years and is on a trajectory to become a regional leader," she said. "I love the team, the board members, and members that I have met. They are just so open and giving. They're ready for the changes... and the diverse background that I have."
That diverse background includes experience in managing institutions of higher learning and a non-profit organization focused on affordable housing.
Tim Clark, the current board chairman of The Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce, and CEO of AdventHealth in Apopka, embraced the idea in a press release announcing Manley's hiring.
“Cate’s diverse background certainly appealed to what we were looking for as we redefine how a chamber of commerce entwines with the larger community,” said Clark. “Last year, our chamber started an economic development partnership with the City of Apopka to truly make a difference in the future of our region and she has the exact background and skills to make this happen.”
“From my view, the Apopka area is poised to truly reach its potential in the next few years and is on a trajectory to become a regional leader," she said. "I love the team, the board members, and members that I have met. They are just so open and giving. They're ready for the changes... and the diverse backgrounds that I have."
--Cate Manley, President/CEO Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce
Diane Velazquez, the only female on the Apopka City Commission, was also pleased by the choice of Manley.
I was excited when I read the newly appointed President was a woman, Ms. Cate Manley," said Velazquez. "I read her bio and was impressed with her vast experience and background especially working with non-profit organizations, and President of two college campuses. I know her organizational and leadership skills will be a tremendous asset in Apopka’s growing business and residential community. It is important to develop and find a median to encourage new businesses to set a foundation in our community and bring employment opportunities and services to Apopka. Her appointment brings hope, fresh ideas, and a new direction to the Chamber."
Manley acknowledges her skill set is different than the typical Chamber President, but thinks those differences are a strength she brings to Apopka at a time when the city is in a positive growth stage.
"While my wheelhouse and professional experiences are different than former leaders of the Chamber, I believe they align perfectly with the needs of the community and the opportunities for healthy business growth in our area," she said. "I see my role as an advocate for business and the community. What that means is we find a way to grow the economy, which brings with it safe housing, safe healthcare, and safe food. Being able to empower people to support their families is key to growth. So while my tactics will possibly be different, the goal and the strategy are the same."
Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson met with Manley before she was hired and is looking forward to what she can bring to the Chamber and its partnership with the City.
“Our relationship with the Chamber is certainly key to the future of Apopka and utilizing Cate’s experience in non-profits and business leadership will be critical as we move forward together,” Nelson said.
Doug Bankson is also impressed and excited for Manley to take on the Chamber President/CEO role.
"I am pleased to see the addition of Cate Manley to the team at the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce, and believe she will be a great voice for our business community," said Bankson, the Seat #3 Apopka City Commissioner. "With central Florida roots and big picture experience, her genuine personality is a good fit for our friendly and business forward community."
Before accepting the Chamber post, Manley was CEO of St. Joseph's Habitat for Humanity in Missouri, which is a global nonprofit housing organization working in local communities across all 50 states and in approximately 70 countries. Habitat’s vision is of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. It works toward a vision of building strength, stability, and self-reliance in partnership with families in need of decent and affordable housing.
It was there that Manley learned about improving the lives of those seeking safe affordable housing, and the gift of self-reliance when it comes to homeownership.
"My experience in working in blighted areas through Habitat helped me to understand that the area of the community being served must understand also the cost of improvements. When property values rise, so do taxes. It's important to show a neighborhood that revitalization does more than cost them money. It also instills hope and pride in the area. So I advocate for CDBG, HOME, and HUD funds that allow for blighted areas to be revitalized as I have managed these funds directly through Habitat."
Although Manley is not familiar with the history of South Apopka, her experience with underserved populations could be an unexpected asset in its improvement. What if the Chamber took the lead in making a plan to right the situation instead of just being a supporting cast member? Manley not only has experience in this area, but may be a candidate in planning its inception.
"In developing a plan for blighted areas it's important to know the direction you're going," Manley said. "It's important for the community as a whole and for the Chamber to start strategizing what we can do. What is the right thing to do? And how is that community going to be a part of that?"
And although she may take a lead role in planning, her experience tells her the community must be at the forefront of the action.
"If you think you're going to come into an area and put your spin on it, that doesn't help in the long term," she said. "They have to invest in it themselves - with sweat equity. With skill. And that is not me saying that. Studies show that. Other agencies that I have worked for like Habitat - we understand that you have to have that sweat equity but you have to empower people to see the value. Take some pride in the area. And that's a whole community issue."
Despite being a newcomer to a generational challenge, Manley knows enough to see that solving a problem like South Apopka has to be a citywide, countywide, all hands on deck priority.
"I don't have my arms wrapped around this yet. I know there's a lot of work to be done. But if we can at least come up with identifying strategies so people have hope, that there's a plan so that we know from the Chamber, from the community, from the mayor, the plan has to be in place so it's more equal for all of our citizens. I think that will draw business as well. They want to know what you're going to do for the least of these. We are not unique in having an area of town that that is blighted. It may take some townhalls to see what they want. It is among the top priorities on my agenda."
Before her time at Habitat, Manley was President of American Institute Holdings, where she was in charge of two college campuses in Celebration (FL) and Denver (CO). She also worked with EduK Group where she oversaw eight colleges serving 23,000 students.
It gives her a unique perspective on the effectiveness education can have in a community.
"My experience in workforce training and education are key when a company comes in from outside to conduct a feasibility study before choosing an area. This is part of the work I did in higher education... find the gaps before we built or acquired new schools, or started a new program. Public policy and regulations impact the workforce, which impacts education and what needs to be taught in the classrooms, so I advocate for the changes that the industries associated with them need to remain sustainable."
Melissa Byrd sees Manley as a leader whose experience in education gives her a unique vision for the future of the area.
“What impresses me most about Cate is the way she sees the overarching connection between all parts of our community," said Byrd, the District 7 Orange County Public School Board member. "She understands the way education affects business and how business can benefit education. Her vast background in various areas gives her the ability to understand how they all work and how they can be utilized to help advance our businesses and our community at the same time.”
As is the case for any Chamber President, economic development in the area will be a priority. And before her tenure, the Chamber was partnering with the City on a website - the start of a venture to bring an economic development strategy to Apopka.
Manley believes it's a good beginning in forming a plan. However, she cautions, it's just that - a beginning.
"The website is absolutely not enough. It's just a starting point... so that there is a visual. The plan is to also have some partnering video... have a marketing plan set in place... at least the legwork and foundation of what an economic development person would do. I think it's an opportunity for a two-pronged approach. We market it, get it tight and everybody says yes this reflects Apopka and what we want to portray to businesses who are thinking of coming here... launch that and begin a marketing plan so that everyone sees it. And then we go from there and see what our feedback is. We can always adapt and change and edit."
Manley also has an idea on who to target first in the marketing campaign.
"Probably a good approach is looking at the sectors that have the best tax advantages right now... those who are doing site selections right now... invite those organizations in to really look at our whole picture. Take a tour. See us. Look at all the incentives. The business-friendly Apopka. Take a look at the specific opportunities here. I think we should just be open to building Apopka. It's a collective. It has to be City, County, and the Chamber... and the business community helping to drive that."
Kyle Becker is in support of that collective, and the move forward on economic development - particularly as it applies to a department for the City.
“Most importantly, I want to extend a very heartfelt welcome to Ms. Cate Manley to Apopka," said Becker, the Seat #4 Apopka City Commissioner. "I look forward to working closely and hearing about the vision she has for the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce, its members, and addressing the needs of our business community. With the absence of a much-needed city-led economic development practice, the city relies on the partnerships the Chamber provides to help move that practice forward. If this continues to be the case, it becomes very critical that synergies exist between the Chamber and our Council to ensure we attract desirable businesses, as well as nurture and help our existing business community thrive here in Apopka.”
The President/CEO of the Chamber is a big job that can be driven in a lot of directions. And despite a lack of local knowledge, Manley brings with her a work ethic and mantra that has served her well in her professional career.
"If you're in the right, doing the right thing with the right intent, you're rarely wrong," she said. "You might get in some trouble here and there, but if you're doing it with the right intent... to help people, to serve people, to empower people, to build... it's almost impossible to fail."
Manley may not know how to find the amphitheater or other places in town without Google Maps or directions from locals, but she might just lead Apopka to places it's never been. She is a visionary in a position to make a difference in a growing community. The Apopka Area Chamber Board made an enlightened decision in selecting her as President/CEO.