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Ten years ago, longtime local Mark Bolton brought a few of the founding directors of the Chamber of Commerce together to recount the story of its humble beginnings for an article in Reflections magazine. Last year, the Chamber celebrated 40 years serving our community–another milestone and representation of the success shared amongst our growing town. The story went like this…..

In 1983 Richmond Hill, Georgia had nearly everything a growing community could want. A school system that produced some of the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test scores in the state, attractive waterfront communities, uncrowded affordable living, and a safe place to raise a family. There was friendliness among its people that welcomed newcomers to share in the building of new churches, community recreational programs, and new medical practices. Soon Bryan County would become the second fastest growing county in Georgia. What more could a community want?

“We were the best kept secret on the Georgia coast. But we needed to get the word out. We wanted to share our secret. We needed a chamber of commerce,” says Charlie Stafford, a local builder/developer and the chamber’s first president in 1983.

Then, few people outside of the immediate area had heard of the much sought after quality of life in the Richmond Hill community. Across the river in Chatham County, people frequently struggled to pay for the home they wanted, they had higher property taxes and, on top of that, many families were paying private school tuition for their children. But in Richmond Hill that same money bought a larger home, property taxes were, and still are the lowest in the region, and our public schools outperform many private schools.

Laura McGee, now a retired certified public accountant, recalls the evening in 1983 when 30 local business owners met in the Bryan County Courthouse Annex building to talk about creating a chamber. “Back then that represented a large portion of the business community in Richmond Hill,” she says. Laura was a charter member of the board of directors and became the Chamber’s first secretary-treasurer. Once the chamber began to market the community, it didn’t take a lot of convincing to entice people to move and bring their families to Richmond Hill. “As business owners, we all wanted to generate more commerce within the community. We needed to grow our businesses.” Laura recalls. “But you have to have rooftops to support businesses,” Charlie adds. “Retail development always follows the people. So… we got the people here.”

Later, Charlie Stafford would publish the town’s first newspaper, open a day care business, and help to organize a locally owned bank. The key to Richmond Hill’s success has always been the quality of its public school system. “If it weren’t for our schools, we wouldn’t have hit it off,” he affirms. The Chamber began to communicate with the community and to promote the area to Savannah.

“Early on, we worked together to fund a nice full-color brochure to invite newcomers to our community. We printed 5,000 brochures for $6,000. We mailed 2,000 to businesses and every doctor’s office in Savannah. We wanted to make Richmond Hill a household name in Savannah-- to get people to come across the river and see us!” real estate developer and builder Johnny Murphy, one of the original signers of the Chamber’s charter, tells of some of the Chamber’s first marketing efforts.

Chris Morris was president of the Chamber in 1990 and had the unique marketing idea of producing a video about Richmond Hill and then sending it to a target audience in a presentation gift box. The box contained the VHS videotape, a letter from the Chamber, and a retractable tape measure with the message, “See how we measure up in Richmond Hill.” Coastal Electric Cooperative facilitated the production of the video, which featured testimonials from local business owners who shared why Richmond Hill was such a great place to live, work, and play.

The Chamber was never short on unique marketing ideas to tell their story. In 1986, the Chamber commissioned a local Liberty County watercolor artist, Betty Hale Grugin of Sunbury, to paint a collage of historical landmarks in and around Richmond Hill. Grugin sold the original print and 2,000 lithographs to the Chamber for $5,000. The Ford Plantation, then the private residence of Ghaith Pharaon, a prominent Saudi businessman, stepped up to pay for the original and the Chamber sold and distributed most of the prints throughout the region. A very limited quantity is still available today through the Chamber.

There were roadblocks to the Chamber’s business development plans. One major infrastructure obstacle the Chamber worked to overcome was the crippling transportation bottleneck between Richmond Hill and Savannah where many of the Hill residents worked. Another major obstacle the Chamber worked to overcome was a perceived telecommunications wall between Richmond Hill and Savannah. The cellular telephone industry was in its infancy in the early 90s. Most people still used only landline phones, and calls between Savannah and Richmond Hill were long distance, a term young people today hardly understand. It was also a long distance phone call to Pembroke, the County seat. For Richmond Hill business owners who depended on being easily reachable by phone, this was such a deterrent to growing their business and reaching new customers that many paid a premium price to obtain what became known as a Savannah line. A local number, where Savannah area callers could reach a Richmond Hill business with a local call.

Jimmy Burnsed, then president of Bryan Bank and Trust, later South State Bank and also president of the Chamber recalls the fight to get local phone service within the County and to Savannah. “Mayor Richard Davis and I made several trips to Atlanta to lobby the Georgia Public Service Commission to order the three phone companies involved to offer local phone service between Pembroke, Richmond Hill, and Savannah. They turned us down, repeatedly, but eventually the Chamber prevailed and the local calling area was expanded,” Jimmy says. That saved many businesses several hundred dollars each month. A lot more than their annual chamber dues. “And that’s just an example of why we so desperately needed a Chamber, to represent the businesses of our community as a group.”

As hard as the Chamber worked to promote the business of its members, the community’s fledgling seafood festival, first held in 1985, has grown to become an event almost synonymous with the Chamber itself. The original festival, known simply as The Richmond Hill Seafood Festival, was the inspiration of Frances Meeks, a retired teacher, principal, and school board member. She knew there were many community organizations such as school groups, the Boy Scouts, churches, and other non-profits who were always coming to the business community seeking donations and support. Frances envisioned a community food festival that would provide a venue for these groups to raise money for themselves but also to call attention to the important marine fisheries industry in Bryan County.

The Bryan Fisherman’s Cooperative had opened at the end of Bryan Fisherman’s Co-op Road about 5.5 miles from Keller with a large 900’ docking facility for shrimp boats. There was a large commercial ice plant, a wholesale seafood processing facility, and later a marine railway where shrimp boats could be hauled out for maintenance. Shrimping was big in Bryan County then. At one time, roughly one sixth of all the wild-caught shrimp on the eastern seaboard was processed through that plant.

So it was befitting the first seafood festival be held on the grounds of the Co-op. Compared to the present venue in J.F. Gregory Park, the Bryan Fisherman’s Coop was quite rustic. Using utility poles, Chamber volunteers constructed a stage where local talent could preform and built two rows of sheds enclosing the individual vendor booths. Bottled water and Coke products were plentiful, but don’t ask for the beer booth. There wasn’t one. As much as it was a smorgasbord of locally sourced seafood, it was also an educational display for kids and adults alike. The Georgia Bulldog and the Salty Dog, both research vessels from the University of Georgia Marine Institute in Savannah were docked at the Co-op. The Bryan Fisherman’s Cooperative facility was opened to the public and the Skidaway Marine Institute brought touch tanks for kids to learn about local marine biology.

Jody Laing, a local real estate agent, was put in charge of the event. Laing worked with the Savannah-based media outlets and Coke for sponsorships. “No one knew whether there would be 500 people or 5,000,” jokes Johnny Murphy, who recalls that rain-dampened attendance the first year. But, by the second year the word was on the streets and there were busloads of people driving down Fisherman’s Co-op Road looking for places to park. “Jody did too good of a job advertising,” Stafford laughs. “WTOC was there and we had more people than we knew what to do with.”

Despite the rain, some people had to walk more than a mile from their vehicles to the festival grounds. And, it was eventually the lack of an adequate facility and parking that led to the event going dormant after 1989. In 1997, Mayor Davis approached the Chamber to bring the seafood festival back. Linda Barker stepped up as festival chair and with the opening of the newly constructed J.F. Gregory park and pavilion, the festival was rebranded The Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival and the attendance grew exponentially over the next few years.

Bonnie Proctor, also a past chair of the festival, says her greatest satisfaction from her years volunteering for the Chamber was that after each seafood festival the Chamber was always able to return money back to the community non-profits. So it can be said that Mrs. Frances Meeks’ humble idea for starting a community event where local clubs and organizations could raise money has grown into an annual regional festival attracting 25,000+ people and internationally known musicians. It is by far the largest funding source for the Chamber.

A banner year for the Festival was in 2002 when Bryan County resident Greg Allman, Southern rock musician, singer, songwriter, and a founding member of The Allman Brothers Band offered to help the Chamber by freely donating his talent for a concert performance. Admission to the festival had long been free. Later, a nominal fee of $2 was charged. But Allman’s huge following of fans would attract nearly 30,000 people to the festival that year who were willing to pay “market price” for a ticket. “Because of the success of Allman’s donated concert, we realized the seafood festival could become the major sustainable funding source for the Chamber.” Says Linda Barker.

Chris Fettes, 2014 Chamber president adds, “In a small community like Richmond Hill, it’s hard to charge membership dues sufficient to support a chamber’s annual budget and carry out the programs and services that members need and expect. “But the seafood festival let the Chamber tap resources outside of the community and made it possible to buy a nice office suite in Crossroads Center, which includes a facility available to Chamber members for small community meetings.”

“Today’s Chamber has turned the corner,” he continues. “We’re on solid ground financially and we have a menu of programs that supports our membership. There is a full-time staff, regular office hours, and the Chamber has a substantial annual operating budget. The Chamber supports Leadership Bryan– a leadership development program, they host ribbon cuttings and grand openings, quarterly business forums, a monthly Lunch and Learn event, new member orientation breakfasts, Business After Hours, political forums, connections to the Small Business Development Center, and many business related workshops and webinars.

A long while back someone was overheard saying, “The one thing the Chamber can do really well is throw a party,” referring to the monthly Business After Hours events. While that may have once been true, today with their professional staff and business-focused leadership driving the organization, the Chamber undeniably has matured and earned the respect of the community.

And, oh yes, this is their 30th anniversary year… you can bet they still know how to throw a great party!

Since this article was written in 2013, Charlie Stafford, Johnny Murphy, Richard Davis and Bonnie Proctor have passed away. Their vision established the foundation for where the Chamber of Commerce stands today.

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