“The big national companies understand the importance of supporting the chamber and community. Then there are the small businesses—those with just a few employees—they are the ones that need the chamber. They are the ones that need us the most.” –Myrna Ballard
For Myrna H. Ballard, growing up in the small town of Hyden, Kentucky made a lasting impression, one that shaped her passion for economic and community growth.
Sheltered by the Appalachian Mountains, Hyden—population less than 400— was once a booming coal-mining town. The vanishing of coal mines began many years ago, and as the demand diminished, so did the jobs.
“It was always up and down with jobs in the coal mines, mostly depending on the price at the time,” says Ballard. “With little other industries, the biggest employer in Hyden was, and still is, the school system.”
Having parents who were both educators, Ballard and her siblings were raised with a deep appreciation of the importance of education. “We always knew that we would go to college; it was important to my parents, especially my father.”
Ready to set out on her own, Ballard attended Western Kentucky University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
“My father agreed to help with my bachelor’s degree, but I was on my own when it came to graduate school,” Ballard says. “I applied for graduate assistantships just about everywhere and ended up getting the best offer from Texas A&M University,” where she earned a master’s degree in community development.
Though she was a thousand miles from Hyden, her thoughts on ways to improve her hometown—and others like it—was a driving force.
“I was always thinking about what we could do to make things better,” she says. “I wanted to find the secret recipe for altering the trajectory of a town like Hyden. To be honest, I still don’t have all the answers.”
With graduate school completed, Ballard remained in Texas, where she worked for the Brazos Valley Development Council, an agency that helps local municipalities identify needs, develop responses, implement solutions, and promote the best use of public resources.
“It was the perfect first job,” says Ballard, who wrote her master’s thesis on the role of banking in rural development. “I was able to work with 20 cities in the region that ranged in size from 100 to 100,000 people. It gave me a good picture of the different challenges communities face.”
Before heading to South Georgia, Ballard and her husband, Dr. Chet Ballard, who recently retired as a sociology professor from Valdosta State University, worked a few years at Longwood University, in Farmville, Virginia.
“We didn’t stay long,” Ballard recalls. “After the first winter, Chet and I remembered how much we dislike the cold weather.”
The move to South Georgia came in 1985 when a faculty position opened at then Valdosta State College. “Chet had always heard about Valdosta State and had his heart set on the job. We moved thinking we would stay for five or six years.”
Six months later, Ballard says, “We had fallen in love with this community.”
Bringing her passion for community revitalization to the region, Ballard held positions with the South Georgia Regional Commission and Brooks County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Authority.
“I wore many different hats in Brooks County,” says Ballard, who previously served as president of the Valdosta Rotary Club and the Valdosta Civic Roundtable. “It was one of the most challenging and fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had. They brought out the best in me, and I hope I had the same effect on them.”
In 1995, Ballard joined the Valdosta Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, first as vice president of economic development, and two years later named the president.
As for what she is most proud of, Ballard cites the chamber’s efforts to help small businesses. In 2004, the chamber created the SEEDS Center, which provides free assistance to startup and existing businesses in Lowndes County.
Each year, the SEEDS Center works with approximately 500 clients, offering various services and resources, including market research analysis, business plan development, website creation, marketing, and branding.
“Through the SEEDS Center, the Chamber sets aside money and resources to invest in our small business community,” she says. “These services are not just for chamber members, but anyone wanting to start a small business or help their current business expand.”
In response to the chamber’s focus on small business growth, and its collaborative efforts with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Valdosta was named Georgia’s first Entrepreneurial Friendly Community by the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Ballard says the SEEDS Center and SBDC have a strong partnership. “If someone is starting to think about opening a business but not sure where to start, the SEEDS Center is the place. There are many steps before they are ready to seek a higher level of services provided by the SBDC.”
A Giant Step
Often described as a “virtual incubator,” the SEEDS Center is ready to make the transition to a physical, functioning business incubator.
After more than a decade of planning—including a series of feasibility studies and an extensive due diligence process—the Valdosta Area Business Incubator (VABI) will soon be a reality.
“The formal announcement will come in early 2021, with renovations completed by 2023,” says Ballard, who has been the driving force in the business incubator’s development.
Every business starts as a small business, and the incubator will offer a work environment that helps nurture and guide entrepreneurs from startup to independence. The incubator will also provide some in-house services—such as legal, accounting, or marketing—that might be too costly for a new business owner.
“Entrepreneurial people are energetic about starting their business. The business incubator provides a place for them to share workspace and experiences and help each other,” Ballard says. “The connections are what incubators are all about—it’s what makes them priceless.”
Located in a 23,400-square-foot historic building in Downtown Valdosta, the VABI will include 10 to 15 furnished offices for lease, as well as options to rent temporary desk space.
“It’s a turnkey operation,” she says, “with the offices and meeting room space, internet, and even a receptionist.”
Funding for the VABI is made possible through a $2.5 million U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant and a $1.5 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) loan administered through the City of Valdosta.
“We would not have the incubator without assistance from the City of Valdosta,” says Ballard. “They are investing through the HUD loan, which in turn will help more small businesses grow and create a larger tax base and more jobs. It’s a great return on their investment.”
Described as a “community game-changer,” Ballard says the incubator will serve as a magnet in attracting business growth to the downtown district.
Gaining 5-Star accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is another shining moment in Ballard’s 23-year tenure as president.
The chamber first received standard accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1987. A few years later, the U.S. Chamber increased its requirements and added levels identified with three, four, and five stars.
While reaching for the stars, the chamber first received a 4-Star ranking in 2004, followed by the highest 5-Star recognition in 2009, a level they have continued to maintain.
The arduous accreditation process requires the chamber to meet or exceed the minimum standards in nine areas: governance, finance, human resources and staff, government affairs, program development, technology, communication, and facilities and benchmarking.
“The SEEDS Center and a strong governmental affairs program are two areas where our chamber stands out,” says Ballard, who received the 2014 Executive of the Year from the Georgia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. “Being accredited tells our members that as a chamber, we are worth their investment and that we are meeting or exceeding standards set by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”
The 5-Star accreditation places the Valdosta Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce within the top 1 percent of chambers nationally.
Ballard has been a constant force in keeping legislators aware of issues impacting local businesses. Through the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Council, Ballard and chamber members make annual visits to Atlanta and Washington to meet with legislators and present a united voice for more than 1,100 chamber businesses.
“This year, with COVID-19 we were not able to make the trips to Washington and Atlanta,” says Ballard. “This is an important part of the chamber’s mission. It’s about keeping Valdosta and Lowndes County in front of our legislators. Here in Georgia, each year, Atlanta is getting louder and stronger, and rural communities have to keep working to be heard.”
When it comes to advocating for small businesses, Ballard says it’s often not the most glamorous thing that provides a big payoff.
“Several years ago, we worked on an unemployment law issue,” she explains. “It was a glitch or loophole that was costing small businesses—not just in Valdosta but across the state—thousands of dollars in unemployment costs.”
After a back-and-forth between state and federal agencies, the Georgia Department of Labor corrected the situation.
“In the end, it was a quick fix,” she says. “But if just one business owner had tried, it probably wouldn’t have gained much attention. As a chamber, we speak on behalf of all our members, it makes a difference.
Counting the chamber’s successes over the years, Ballard is quick to give credit to the staff—past and present—along with dozens of dedicated board members, hundreds of volunteers, and thousands of members.
“We’ve always had great employees, but right now, we have a team that is a cohesive group ready to work. Even during this year’s COVID issues, they have shown tremendous work ethics,” says Ballard.
Like a business incubator, Ballard says the chamber uses its internship program to “grow” some of its employees.
“One of the most rewarding parts of this job is working with our Valdosta State University interns,” she says. “We have even hired a few after graduation.”
Summing up her time as chamber president, Ballard gives credit to the business community—both large and small.
“The big national companies understand the importance of supporting the chamber and community,” she says. “Then there are the small businesses—those with just a few employees—they are the ones that need the chamber. They are the ones that need us the most.”
While COVID-19 has handed small businesses many challenges, Ballard says she is proud of how the chamber team responded.
“This year, we reached out to the entire business community,” she says. “We communicated with not just chamber members, but all small businesses throughout the community.”
Serving as a point-of-contact, the chamber staff shared information on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP); provided information from the Small Business Administration, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and sponsored virtual workshops to help small businesses stay informed and open.
“During COVID, if a small business didn’t know before, they know now that they need a relationship with their chamber and a local banking institution,” says Ballard. “Small business owners need each other, and they need the resources and services a chamber provides.”
With 2021 bringing retirement life, Ballard says she and Chet don’t have any definite plans. “I love to read, and I have to be careful when I pick up my Kindle—I could read all day. It’s lovely to have options, and we are open to seeing what’s next for us.”
Photos by Wes Sewell