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Chamber celebrates 75 years

BY CORIANNE EGANcegan@paducahsun.com

A lot can happen in 75 years. In Paducah, a lot did happen in that time. But nearly every stride forward, every major accomplishment, has ties to the local Chamber of Commerce.

Founded the year after the 1937 flood, when the area was still reeling from damage and loss, what is now the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce hit the ground running. Less than a year later the group, led by the first board chairman, Robert Rust, secured $200,000 to raise a floodwall to protect the city. It was the first of many major accomplishments.

For more than seven decades, the largest and most successful projects in Paducah have been influenced by the Chamber, which now boasts more than 900 members. But one can't forget its primary functions: to support business and growth in Paducah and McCracken County. They facilitate networking and learning within a corps of businesses that, for the most part, have 15 or fewer employees.

"Through working events they do, we get to meet a lot of people," said David Jones, co-owner of Artisan Kitchen and Shandies. "In the beginning, we were meeting people and getting our name out there, showing people what we could do. It was very helpful."

The Chamber never shies away from the power of networking, through mixers, monthly breakfasts, trade shows and multiple committee opportunities. But beyond that, the Chamber goes to work for small businesses through referrals, business advocacy and public policy. It puts together priority lists - lists that are formed from chamber members' input - and works with federal and state legislation to make those priorities a reality.

This year's priority list, for example, includes funding for the Paducah School of Art and Design's new Lower Town campus, along with multiple road projects. A prospective "inner loop," the widening of Olivet Church Road, and improvements to the Hinkleville Road Interstate 24 exit are highlighted on the list.

Those projects are large in size and require years of hard work, but the Chamber is no stranger to uphill battles. In 1994, the Chamber and other community leaders started the  push for an entertainment venue. That venue, now known as the Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center, was built seven years later and opened in 2004.

Many of the city's other landmarks have similar stories. The Chamber lobbied for funding for the new Paducah Middle School, which opened this past fall. Leaders threw their support behind a Paducah campus for Murray State University, which now has become a reality as well.

"I think a community is as good as the people who live in it," former chairwoman Susan Guess said. "If you want to make a difference, you work hard to make it a better place, and Paducah really welcomes that. You have to dream big, and then you have to make it happen. We don't take no easily."

Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652 or follow @CoriEgan on Twitter.

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