New mayor forms CEO task force

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Business leaders soon will be taking a more active role in shaping the city’s future.

Since taking office July 1, Mayor Bobby L. Ralph said he has asked business leaders for input on how the city could better meet the business community’s needs.

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Over and over, Ralph said, he heard some version of the same answer – that communication between city government and businesses needs to be strengthened.

&uot;They felt a lot more could be accomplished if they were more in tune with government,&uot; said Ralph. &uot;An obvious way to deal with that is creation of the Mayor’s Advisory Council of CEOs.&uot;

The group of business executives, who were recommended by the city’s Department of Economic Development, will begin meeting quarterly next month. Industrial Development Authority Chairman John Harrell will also serve on the committee.

&uot;Business leaders are in a unique position to help local government get a read on what businesses are looking for… and what we could do to make Suffolk more attractive to the business community,&uot;

Ralph said. &uot;CEOs are people who have risen to the top in their respective fields and they are willing to let us lean on them for expertise.&uot;

For example, business leaders are in the best position to identify what makes a community attractive to new industry, such as public schools, adequate public facilities, recreational facilities and daycare provisions.

&uot;Then their input could be used as we (city council members) formulate our priorities for the city’s future,&uot; Ralph said.

The CEOs are also able to identify special training, educational levels and other skills needed within the local business community, Ralph said. With their input, businesses and public schools may be able to network on educational training programs, he said.

&uot;I think it will add support to the direction of curriculums for schools and community colleges,&uot; said Ralph. &uot;Businesses feel there needs to be a connection between what is being taught for schools and what is taught for employment.&uot;

Felix Venezuela, general manager at Sara Lee, believes the organization can go a long way toward creating a healthy business community.

He expects the top issues identified during initial meetings will be the need for more jobs, increased educational opportunities and drug awareness training.

The need for such a group was never more evident that it was in June, when Venezuela learned through the media that Tidewater Occupational Center was closing.

&uot;I wasn’t even aware that business existed,&uot; Venezuela said. &uot;Had we known about it in time, Sara Lee could have transferred a lot of manual-intensive work over there.

&uot;At some point, there needs to be a forum for dialogue between business and local government, …a way for the two bodies to exchange information or partner up on projects,&uot; he continued. &uot;There are a lot of companies out there who are ready, willing and able to help. They just don’t know where to start.

&uot;Things may start out slow but if we make enough noise, other companies will follow. And good things will begin happening.&uot;

Tom O’Grady, the city’s director of economic development, applauded the creation of the CEO council.

&uot;I think it’s another opportunity for us to interact with existing businesses and listen to their questions and concerns,&uot; O’Grady said.

&uot;It is an opportunity for us to be more proactive and responsive to their needs.&uot;