New chair wants to continue signature projects
by Jon Gillooly
March 03, 2014 12:05 AM | 592 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb Chamber CEO David Connell and new chamber chair Ben Mathis outside the chamber's headquarters. (Kelly J. Huff/Staff)
Cobb Chamber CEO David Connell and new chamber chair Ben Mathis outside the chamber's headquarters. (Kelly J. Huff/Staff)
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CUMBERLAND - Cobb Chamber of Commerce Chairman Greg Morgan passed the torch to attorney Ben Mathis during the organization's annual black-tie dinner earlier this year.

As this year's chamber chairman, Mathis leads a 75-member board and 37-member staff.

There are about 2,600 companies that are members of the Cobb Chamber.

Mathis said he aspires to serve in the role like such predecessors as U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Synovus CEO Kessel Stelling and Bank of North Georgia President Rob Garcia.

"This is all Rob Garcia's fault is the way I look at it," Mathis said. "Rob is the one who pulled me from being a member into really leadership, so I remind him constantly this year that he cannot get out of the chamber, that I'm not letting him get away."

Mathis's agenda includes fully funding the county's signature

economic development program, protecting Dobbins Air Reserve Base from closure, creating a business incubator and supporting the county's transportation plans.

Bus Rapid Transit

Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee said the county will have completed a study that determines the feasibility of building a bus rapid transit line from Kennesaw State University to Midtown Atlanta in April. Isakson said he believes Cobb can obtain federal funding to help pay for the proposed $494 million cost of the system.

"One of our goals is to be involved in that process and be involved in helping to shape and support what comes out of it," Mathis said. "We don't come in with any preconceived idea of what it should be."

Mathis has visited Cleveland to see for himself how that city's bus rapid transit system works.

"I think it's easy to not understand what it is until you see it," he said. "And I think it has a tremendous amount of value. I think it's the future."

Hard rail is too expensive and only in certain circumstances will it ever be feasible to build, Mathis believes. But bus rapid transit is a different matter with the kind of technology coming online.

In a few years, Mathis believes nobody will be riding on farm tractors to harvest crops, for example.

"I mean, Bubba will sit in his room with a joy stick and run a tractor, a combine, and all those kind of machines," he said.

He cited a mining company that went from employing 60 people making annual salaries of $75,000 for driving giant Caterpillar dump trucks to only employing one driver.

"Because they're drone trucks," he said. "And so I think the BRT concept is where you're headed with dedicated buses because in a few years who knows what it will be. You may not even have drivers. So you can build those so much cheaper and create a system. Right now with drivers it's a way to move people dramatically cheaper."

In short, Mathis is a fan.

"It's a much more financially feasible way, but how much is dedicated to that out of the next TSPLOST, local TSPLOST, how all that works, the intersection, those are things" that remain to be decided, he said. "We want to have a role in making sure our members in the business community have an understanding of what it is and help shape it and support it because there is a problem and it needs solutions and the question is what will the solution be."

An economic engine

Mathis said he enjoys the practice of law, his involvement in Georgia Tech - he will chair the university's alumni association in two years - and immersing himself in his community and what the Chamber does. A good example of the Chamber's effectiveness is snagging the Atlanta Braves.

"Every once in a while there's like a signature moment, and all the things the Chamber did came together for the Braves," he said.

The Major League baseball team's move to Cobb, he believes, will make a huge difference for the area. Looking around the country, bedroom communities are in danger of stagnating because as they get older, the children move away, he said.

"The parents just stay in the house until they pass away or go someplace else and the area deteriorates," he said. "I've lived in Marietta for 20 years, and I've seen some of the challenges Marietta has because of the economic development didn't happen the way we wanted it to, and I think Cobb was in danger of that."

The Atlanta Braves' move here is a sign that the county is alive and well.

EDGE funding, trails and BRAC

Cobb's Competitive Economic Development for a Growing Economy initiative, known as EDGE, is a five-year economic development strategy housed and staffed at the Chamber as a nonprofit. The goal is to have a $4 million budget over five years to carry out various benchmarks from job growth to increasing test scores.

Chamber CEO David Connell said after raising between $1.3 million to $1.5 million last year, fundraising efforts were put on hold while EDGE staff worked on the Braves' move.

With the franchise closing on a $34 million, 57-acre tract down the road from the Cumberland Mall on Friday, fundraising will now fire back up, Connell and Mathis said.

Another goal of the new chairman's is to protect Dobbins from next year's potential Base Realignment and Closure process.

"The base supports the runway and maintains the tower and that sort of stuff, and if the base were to be closed, the runway and tower would have to be operated either under some type of special government program, or Lockheed would have to operate it, or Lockheed might go somewhere else," Connell said.

Connecting the county's series of trails from the Silver Comet Trail to the ones in the Town Center and Cumberland community improvement districts is also a goal.

"We're on the verge of having a trail system where literally you can go from Town Center all the way to the Galleria, all the way to Alabama, and so we're going to put together a group to look at what needs to be done to connect it up and the resources to make it all tied together," Mathis said.

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