When Doc Eldridge was named director of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce in 2007, the organization wasn’t in good shape. It was deeply in debt. It had only 680 dues-paying members, not the reported 1,200. And worst of all, perhaps, it wasn’t in good standing with the overall community.
The Chamber had become too involved in local politics, issuing score cards for public officials and endorsing candidates. Chamber officials didn’t show up at City Hall unless they wanted something, said Eldridge, who served as mayor before going to the Chamber. He well remembers the tension between local government and the chamber.
“Doc brought people back to the Chamber and leveled out the environment in an effort to return the local government and Chamber to a relationship,” said former mayor Heidi Davidson, who served as Mayor from 2002 until 2011.
These days, Eldridge is waiting to see what further budget cuts will come from state government that have a direct economic impact on the University of Georgia—and its student population. Athens, he says, has been the biggest single beneficiary of the HOPE scholarship.
“There was a lot of walking around money the first years of HOPE, and you can see it in town,” said Eldridge. “Our economic train is pulled by education and health care. When there are hard dollar cutbacks, you feel it locally.”
He fears that some of the high-end student apartments, houses and duplexes, built in the 1990s and early 2000’s, won’t be able to find student tenants if money is tighter. Also affecting the housing market is that UGA has built so many residence halls—and renovated existing ones--on campus in recent years and plans to build more.
With less discretionary money, students may not frequent the many bars and restaurants that have thrived in recent years. Bars tend to come and go downtown, but Eldridge says there will likely be more of them shutting their doors permanently.
He intends to continue working with his board and recruiting new members. Today, the Chamber has 840 dues-paying members. And it has the affable Eldridge, an Athens native and former insurance executive who knows, or will happily meet, everyone and anyone. The Chamber’s PAC is gone, and so is the attitude that isolated City Hall, he said.
The Chamber is all about networking and business advocacy. Members meet each other regularly at twice monthly get-togethers. The Chamber posts photos of ribbon cuttings and openings and touts accomplishments of its members.
“There’s been a flurry of activity in the last two years, and I think it has to do with the recession,” Eldridge said. “The Chamber offers more opportunities now. It’s seen as a pretty good value for the investment.”