The Howard County Chamber of Commerce (HCCC) recently named Leonardo McClarty president and CEO. McClarty comes to the position after serving as director of the York (Pa.) Department of Economic & Community Development, where he managed a budget of more than $4 million.
Previously, McClarty also served as president and CEO of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce in Decatur, Ga., for 10 years, where he worked with a 45-member board of directors. He led initiatives to build relationships between businesses, the community and government agencies, while advocating for the business community with state government officials.
A career economic development professional, McClarty has also worked for the City of Roswell, Ga., and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. He holds an undergraduate degree in political science from Furman University and a graduate degree in city and regional planning from Clemson University. He holds Certified Economic Development Finance Professional designation through the National Development Council (NDC) and is a graduate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Organization Management.
In addition to his professional responsibilities, he has served on numerous local and regional boards, including as a board member of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.
What were the main challenges you faced during your stint in York?
There were a number of them. One issue was the overall government structure. Pennsylvania cities are divided into classes. York, and many cities like it, were faced with challenges that were not of its own doing. Consequently, they are heavily dependent upon taxes and fees in order to make it financially.
Unfortunately, legacy costs tied to pensions and other obligations are outpacing the revenues derived from taxes. Other issues pertained to perception relative to crime and public safety, and the fact that the city has a large percentage of residents that fit in the low- and moderate-income category.
It turned out that you worked only briefly in York, but you were at the DeKalb Chamber for almost a decade. What do think was your high point there?
The respect that the chamber earned in the business community. When I got there, the organization was just coming out of a relationship with the metro Atlanta chamber, so it was a transitional period.
We were able to start some quality programs that often involved having local and federal officials, politicians and business leaders speak to our members on issues pertaining to business. We also founded the Women Executive Leaders of DeKalb, as well as a group that is much like our Young Professionals Network.
We ran a highly successful golf tournament that allowed us to institute a scholarship program where we raised well more than $140,000 and awarded approximately 50 college scholarships. We also held “principal shadow day” initiatives and another education initiative called “Seeing is Believing,” where business leaders boarded buses to see, firsthand, what was taking place in schools. Unlike Howard County, DeKalb schools had some reputation issues, so we wanted to highlight some positive images.
Lastly, we were successful in getting the finances of the chamber in order.
What attracted you to the Howard Chamber opening?
The community was very attractive due to its education level and its proximity to D.C. and Baltimore. In terms of how it works, it resembled what I was used to in DeKalb County. In other words, it looked like home. And the organization was poised to go to the next level, and I would have the opportunity to lead it.
What are your impressions of the business climate, most notably the tax structure, in Maryland?
I’m still learning about them, but I understand its dynamics and how they are all inter-related, such as the educated workforce development, proximity to markets and the county’s civic pride. That can outweigh any regulatory issues that may exist.
What are your initial impressions about the Howard County business landscape?
That it has dedicated business leaders and an especially strong small businesses community, with successful entrepreneurs. They have been supportive of the chamber and want to see it do well.
What are your impressions of the Downtown Columbia Master Plan and its progress to date?
The plan is quite impressive. The Downtown Columbia Master Plan concept is something to be admired. I believe the plan is the perfect example of vision and leadership and how, as leaders, we have to have the foresight to plan for something we may not see; yet, we continue to press forward, because it is the right thing to do, and there are others counting on us to do it.
And what do you think about the plans for Symphony Woods, as well as Merriweather Post Pavilion, and how they will draw visitors to what is planned to be an active downtown district?
While I am still getting up to speed, I would say these plans are what make Columbia so special. You hear about the importance of “live-work-play,” but it’s hard to create that trifecta.
Symphony Woods and Merriweather will allow the residents of Howard County the opportunity to continue enjoying wonderful recreation opportunities within their community, all the while attracting visitors from near and far. I recall having two people tell me about concerts at Merriweather before I had even heard of it.
In recent years, the film tax incentives have created thousands of jobs in Georgia. Would you like to see the Maryland program get a boost?
I am not totally familiar with the film and entertainment industry and its impact on the Maryland economy. But I can say, based upon my Georgia experience, that it could be a greater economic generator for the state. Film lends itself to tourism as actors, producers and related industries come in from out of state, patronize our restaurants and … shop at our stores. Moreover, it creates jobs for aspiring artists and helps to keep local talent in state.
Are you thinking of trying to implement anything in particular that you’ve learned about elsewhere into a new program or approach here?
What I’m focused on during these early months of 2015 is meeting the members and thinking about what we do well, and perhaps what we can enhance. After that point, we’ll consider making adjustments. One program that has really intrigued me is GovConnects, because in Georgia the government contracting spaces isn’t nearly as big as it is here. I can tell you that our members and the community will see us much more active in legislative affairs, small business issues and education/workforce development.
I think we do more in the professional development area for our small business members. I am interested in seeing how we can better collaborate with other interest groups on matters that would benefit the membership.
What’s the main difference between economic development and chamber work?
In some respects there is overlap, but the big difference is that, in the chamber world, you touch a broader array of sectors. In economic development, I was usually working with brokers, site selectors, engineers and developers.
From my experience, the chamber allows you to see how businesses connect to form a strong economy. The chamber might be more macro in scope and economic development micro, simply because the focus is more laserlike. Sometimes you get that in the chamber world; sometimes you don’t.
What do you consider the greatest challenge of your career so far and how did you conquer it?
I think the biggest challenge was in DeKalb, when I took over an organization with a storied past, but a chequered present, then reestablished it so it was seen as an asset to the business and general community. To do that, I had to approach the situation as a “we” effort. There were some things that I spearheaded, but I know that it always takes more than one person to accomplish the goals at hand.
Also, being forced to think creatively was a challenge. We’ve all heard the old adage that, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” And creativity is the way that you figure out how to not only deal with setbacks, but accomplish goals.