By REID TUCKER
New Walton Area Chamber of Commerce President Kellie Jo Kilberg is no stranger to the business of promoting businesses but after a little more than a month on the job she’s still getting a feel for her new digs.
Kilberg, a native Iowan who took over the offices of Walton County Chamber president and CEO in May, was initially attracted to the area as it offered her an opportunity to move closer to her parents, who retired to Niceville. She has 23 years’ experience in the chamber of commerce field, starting out as public relations director for the chamber of commerce of Charlotte County, Fla. after graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism. In the mid-‘90s she went on to work for the city of Enterprise, where she stayed until 2003, before moving to Jacksonville to helm Clay County’s chamber.
While there is no denying her extensive résumé, Kilberg will be the first to talk about the differences between her previous post in a county of 200,000 people and Walton County, with a population a little more than a quarter that size.
For starters, she said Walton County is simultaneously more rural and has an economy more tourism-driven than many others in the state and any place she worked previously, with both factors their own challenges. In order to bring herself up to speed and to make sure the Chamber is doing its utmost to help Walton County’s business owners, Kilberg has already ramped up the relationship between her organization and the Walton County Economic Development Alliance and the Tourist Development Council. Cooperation between the three groups is critical if the county is to diversify its opportunities, Kilberg said.
“We will have strong partnerships with both the EDA and the TDC to leverage the funds the county has to not only retain the jobs we currently have, whether they’re tourism jobs or service jobs, and also to help create other opportunities,” she said. “Not any one organization is going to be able to do it alone, but I think through partnerships we can definitely make a difference.”
After spending several weeks getting better acclimated to the county’s four distinct communities and listening to the concerns and suggestions of business owners in each, Kilberg came up with several ideas about what she’d like to see happen in the county. A strong emphasis has been placed on so called “think local campaigns” aimed at staving off the leak of local money into nearby counties and increased cooperation with educational programs such as Workforce in Education and with the school systems. Also increased priority has been placed on greater social media presence, which Kilberg said has become one of the best ways for the Chamber to stay in touch with up-and-coming young professionals.
“I think the Chamber really gives [business owners] the opportunity to network, gives the opportunity to get your name out there, whether it’s by shaking hands or being on our website, attending the different events or advertising in any one of our publications,” Kilberg said. “We give you the opportunity to get out to the business community…..The Chamber by itself isn’t going to bring someone through your door but definitely giving the opportunities to get your message and branding out so that people know what you do.”
However, the main thrust of what Kilberg hopes to accomplish during her tenure at the Chamber is job creation that takes into consideration “new wealth,” or bringing in new types of business for each community in the county. To that end, recruiting and expanding the county’s high-end, high-paying jobs has been prioritized, as these so-called “primary jobs” invest in the community by supporting the growth of secondary jobs like retail stores and firms providing services to residents throughout the county. That means Kilberg will be putting in more and more face time with local business owners and individuals, including the more than 700 members registered with the Chamber, at community brainstorming get-togethers.
“You have to make sure you’re recruiting somewhere within those higher-skill, higher-wage jobs so that people can afford to live wherever they choose to live,” Kilberg said. “That’s how to bring wealth-creation to the community. It takes an understanding of the true diversity in Walton County.
“The most important question we can ask is ‘How can we give opportunities to those businesses so that they get more business?’”