by Bill Russell

Just over 10 years ago, Tucker Mitchell, editor and associate publisher at The Leader newspaper met with me at the offices of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce to discuss a new business venture. Mitchell was considering the creation of a newspaper that could capture the spirit of “community and place” he felt was lacking by the media covering north Mecklenburg at the time.

Sitting across from me as we enjoyed our coffee, he asked confidentially could the town of Huntersville and its growing business community support such a venture. “On its own,” I replied, “probably not. However, if you include the growth and potential in Cornelius and Davidson, absolutely.”

I am certain Tucker had already reached that conclusion before meeting with me and months later The Huntersville Herald was born. Today, The Herald Weekly and its spin-off publications in Mountain Island Lake, Denver and Mooresville reach an estimated market of more than 100,000 people.

In 2006, Mitchell was recognized as the Robert T. Cashion Business Person of the Year for his vision and investment in our Lake Norman communities. The creation of a regional newspaper tying our communities together was another step in our journey, which began more than two decades ago with the founding of the Chamber.

The Lake Norman Chamber, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, had its start as the North Mecklenburg Chamber. Business leaders in the late 1980s were frustrated with the lack of representation within the Mecklenburg County governance structure. They also saw a need to create a sense of identity.

Business and elected leaders in the towns of Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville did not want to be “just” a suburb or bedroom community to Charlotte, although each benefited greatly from its proximity to the Queen City. That sense of place, which had been lacking, took hold when water and sewer lines were extended to the lake. The Chamber’s leadership pushed for representation on the county’s watershed committee and began actively participating in the community plans, which led to the town’s land development codes impacting business and commerce.

The chamber organized a regional fall festival – NorthFest, which became LakeFest – and after a 10 year run it became simply too successful as we outgrew the Jetton Park facilities. LakeFest galvanized our rapidly growing business and civic communities with numerous new neighborhoods and new families.

While its full impact would not be felt for another decade, the Chamber pushed for equal distribution of hospitality taxes, hotel and prepared meals taxes, which now generate approximately $3.2 million, of which $1.6 is returned to the north Mecklenburg towns.

The Chamber, in the first of two public-private partnerships, launched the creation of Visit Lake Norman, which is responsible today for generating events totaling $19 million in fiscal year 2011 and 54,844 visitors at 72 events. That visitor spending saved every household in Cornelius, Davidson, and Huntersville $315.91 last year in taxes they would otherwise have to pay in property taxes were it not for travel and tourism.

In the summer of 2002, the Lake Norman Chamber contracted with the economic development consultant firm of Leak-Goforth to create a strategic plan for primary job creation and a blueprint for economic development efforts in north Mecklenburg.

So what is the most significant contribution of the Chamber over 25 years? I asked that question of one of the Chamber’s early founders and former Cornelius Town Mayor Gary Knox. His response: “Regionalism!”

“We practiced regionalism when ‘regionalism’ was just another word. Our kids went to North Meck High in Huntersville. We might live in Cornelius, work in Huntersville, and go to church in Davidson,” said Knox. “The Chamber was the thread that stitched together the fabric of our community and in everything we did – we did it recognizing we had to support each other and work together.”

Lake Norman is a great place to live, work, and visit. However, just as the generation of business and elected leaders worked to build a solid foundation for our success, we still have a ways to go before we rest.

We need more classroom space, employment opportunities for our citizens, and lake access for public swimming. North Mecklenburg must have a magistrate, improved transportation infrastructure, and a balanced tax structure between business and commerce and our residential tax base.

This year marks a celebration in the life of a community newspaper and a regional chamber of commerce. It also serves as a daily reminder that the only limitations we have – are those we impose upon ourselves.

Bill Russell is the President & CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce with approximately 900 members serving the business community of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, and the greater Lake Norman region.