ANDERSON — The walls in Clayton Whitson’s new office in the Union Building in downtown Anderson are bare. The sparsely furnished room contains a small table, a few chairs and an uncluttered computer desk.
Whitson hasn’t spent much time there since assuming his duties as the president and CEO of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce on New Year’s Day.
“I need to be out in the community,” Whitson said. “The best way to keep your pulse on the community and what’s going on is to be out in it. So as I’m having these meetings with all of our community stakeholders, I want to do it on their turf. I want to get to know them as a person, but I also want to get to know their business. It’s hard to do that from my office.”
Whitson’s first days on the job have been a whirlwind of one-on-one and group meetings with several purposes — mainly to introduce himself to the county’s business leaders, economic development and government officials. But he is also using these sessions to tout a new message: The Chamber will be more involved in efforts to develop a dynamic workforce well-suited to meeting the needs of any company considering locating in the county. It will also promote a variety of wellness and beautification initiatives that Whitson believes is central to attracting not only new workers, but new residents to the area.
During a morning sitdown with Beth Tharp, CEO of Community Hospital Anderson, Whitson noted Madison County’s dismal ranking in last year’s state health outcome rankings.
“I would love to find ways for you and I to partner to focus on quality-of-life issues and see what we can do to improve that ranking,” Whitson told Tharp, adding that he had spoken with Madison County Health Department administrator Stephenie Grimes about representing the Chamber with Madison Health Partners, an initiative involving local hospital CEOs and the Madison County Community Foundation.
“I think Clayton is really going to be just so impressive in this role,” Tharp said later. “He’s excited, he’s full of energy, and in my opinion he’s got the right vision for where our community needs to move. He strikes me as one that wants to partner, which I think our community needs — folks that really want to pull people together and not just go out and do their own thing.”
Whitson is a lifelong Elwood resident, and as a former member of the Madison County Council, his connections with area government officials provide a new avenue for the Chamber to share its updated vision.
“He understands that economic development for a city like Anderson is a completely different animal than economic development for smaller communities like Alexandria, Frankton and Elwood,” says Elwood Mayor Todd Jones, who appointed Whitson to that city’s park board last year. “He’s a very good team player, he’s very intelligent, and he’s a strong and effective communicator.”
By their nature, the Chamber’s goals of serving as a networking resource for local businesses and venturing into workforce development and community advocacy require collaboration, its board members say. They sense that Whitson will be successful in that area as well.
“We’ve got a lot of different groups, entities that do a lot of the same things, and we can work together,” says Kirk Klabunde, senior vice president and commercial banking manager at First Merchants Bank. “When he talks, you hear that in his voice, that he wants those groups to work together, that he’s willing to connect, he’s willing to repair and mend some relationships and build others.”
Whitson stresses that the Chamber will still prioritize its role as a means for businesses to connect and share knowledge. But the opportunity to have a seat at the table with county officials as they work to further improve the local business environment is one he’s particularly excited about.
“The meetings that I’ve had with a few key players, the message is overwhelmingly positive,” Whitson said. “They think that this is something the Chamber probably should have been doing for a long time.
“We’ve got a lot of entities that are doing a lot of good things,” he continued. “We can use our skill set of connecting and bringing folks together to get all of our stakeholders together on different things and really make sure that we’re all rowing in the same direction.”