What in the World?

March 30, 2020Doug Peters, President and CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce

I’ve really struggled as I prepared to write this week’s blog post.  So many things have run through my mind, and it’s been tough to get my mind wrapped around them enough to make sense of them.

Not because there’s nothing to write about. Not by a longshot. But because there’s so much to write and no easy way to say anything. I’m rarely at a loss for words. But this one is hard.

Let me start by just sharing a recurring theme that I wake up thinking about in the middle of the night. It’s about all of this – the information overload; the hurry to identify the resources and to understand them well enough to share them. It’s about hearing friends and others share their despair as the haunt of the unknown was sneaking up on them. It’s about my obvious inability to make it all go away.

Folks, this may be the single-most difficult experience of my career. I’ve watched grown men cry. I’ve watched otherwise strong women break down. I’ve seen fear in the eyes of those who, like me, tend to worry about things they can’t control.

Like you, I spent the first few days (depending on when this actually “started”) in shock. Certainly, what I was hearing couldn’t be true. Surely my country would fix it. Surely somebody would fix it. Surely Abilene would be immune.

Then the market did what the market did. And as if that wasn’t painful enough, it brought with it the painful understanding that yes, this is real.

But get this – I watched and listened and learned for the better part of a week. And while “this” hasn’t gotten easier for anyone, I started to see something that in my experience is truly unique to Abilene, Texas.

This community began to rally. People were beginning to say, “oh no you don’t!” I’ve seen the slow emergence of hope, and those who had their necessary and well-warranted emotional breakdowns are back, me included. And get this – they’re bound and determined and committed to the notion that “this” will not break them. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Abilene way.

And so, with that initial shock subsiding, I’ve made a choice.  I’m not going to let you or anyone else live in fear. This Chamber is committed to everything that’s reasonable and necessary to support you through “this.”  And, you’d better believe that we’re not the only ones. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. We’re all committed to the same thing.

The Abilene Chamber is 112 years old this year. As the area’s oldest and only private business advocacy organization, I rallied our professional staff and here’s what I told them:

Our members come first. They always will. But our community and the businesses who call Abilene home need us. They need us more now than ever, and some may not even yet know it. We will remove the firewall between members and non-members and we will address every business concern – quickly, accurately, with compassion and with a determination to make a difference.

And, as they always do, they understood.

As the area’s chief business advocacy organization, it was time to ramp up the advocacy. At our very core, that’s who your Chamber is. That’s what we do. It was time to stand tall for business and to lead. And while our obvious priority was the immediate needs of business, our work in all that we do hasn’t stopped. We’ve postponed and rescheduled a metric ton of events, functions, programs and ribbon cuttings.

And, your chamber, just last week, weighed in on two important pieces of legislation that you might not have even hit your radar. As an example, TxDOT wanted to spend all its reserves to improve I-35 through Austin.  $7 billion worth. Guess who stepped up and stood up for West Texas? Your Chamber. Just like we’ve done for more than a century.

And think about this. We know our restaurants and our mom and pop retailers and so many others are hurting. Sure, we’ll never stop doing all we can to help them. But we’re also trying to help those who are helping them. I posted a meme that showed Mr. Rogers (remember him?) and it suggested that as a youngster he worried about the bad things he’d see on the TV news. He says his mother would tell him that in every bad situation there are helpers. She urged him to look for the helpers.

And so that silly little meme changed my thinking. Instead of worrying about the situation we’re in, it reminded me that I’m expected to help. We’re all expected to help.  And not just lip service. Not hiding away and hoping the phone doesn’t ring while existing like we’re on some sort of weird vacation. But proactively asking hard questions and acting to make a difference. I hope you know that your Chamber has been trying our best to do exactly that.

This is where I need to tell you about your professional staff. You know all the social media updates we’re putting out? The new businessresourceabilene.com resource page to make it easy for you to navigate? The thousands upon thousands of pages of information that continues to pile in needs to be validated? There was a team of grade-A Chamber ninjas making that happen. They’re tireless, motivated and determined to work on behalf of the business community. In every Chamber affiliate – our Convention & Visitors Bureau, our Cultural Affairs Council, the Industrial Foundation, you name it. You should be proud. I am.

But you know what really surprised me?  A note sent by the chair of our Abilene Young Professionals, Taylor Sturgis, that implored his peers to heed the recommendations for social distancing, health hygiene and to abide by what our public leaders were telling us. He saved lives.  They’re saving lives. And their action is helping us to “flatten the curve” to minimize business disruption and get our city back.

And if you’re one of the 10 percent of the Chambers membership who responded to the two “conditions” surveys we’ve distributed, I want to thank you.  That collection of data helps us to understand what you need, how you’re faring through “this,” and how your Chamber and our community can best serve you.

That data is anonymous. Individual respondents aren’t identified. And in aggregate, we’re not only using that information to chart our own course of action, but we’re sharing it with government at all levels to ensure the painful voice of the Abilene business community is heard.

We won’t stop responding to your immediate needs. That’s job one. But we are beginning to pivot to what comes next. The recovery. Doing everything humanly possible to mitigate the damage to your business, your emotional state and your future as an investor in your Chamber and as a risk-taker in our community.

Remember, we’re not from the government, but we ARE here to help you. We don’t have the authority to force the city into any decisions. But we do lend our voice.  Collectively, and on your behalf.  Representing this community’s single-largest taxpaying constituency with nearly 40,000 eligible voters among them. No one wants our community to take a ten-year economic step backward. Only forward motion. That’s what your Chamber is fighting for.

And government? They’re listening. They understand that our economy must matter. They understand that the road ahead will be hard for all of us. And they’re mitigating as much pain as they can while they deal with something most – if not all – of us have never dealt with before.

Now. Let me end with this: there IS a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light shines on our great city. We can do this. We have to. We’ve never waited for anyone to come help us, we’ve always done the heavy lifting ourselves.

Afterall, that, is the Abilene way.

Onward!

Doug

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