Lounging in a chair in his office at the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, President and CEO James McCoy smiles, remembering his first trip to Johnny Rockets.
It was 2004 and he had recently moved to Georgia, having taken a job in Atlanta as a lobbyist for a national trade association. He had previously worked for the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce in North Carolina and the position seemed like a natural progression.
He went to school at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and upon graduating worked for a law firm for a year and then managed a state senate race in North Carolina.
“That introduced me to the chamber of commerce in Winston-Salem, and I was there for about four years,” McCoy said. “I was their government affairs and lobbyist guy and [then] I became vice president of their government affairs and marketing.”
Having grown up in a small town in Macon County, which is located on the state’s southwest edge, just north of the Georgia border, McCoy barely knew what a chamber of commerce was prior to managing the senate race.
“In my hometown, it was the place you went for brochures. It was not a major, influential business organization,” McCoy said. “The [Winston-Salem Chamber] was really eye-opening and the things I loved about politics [are] very vibrant in chambers of commerce.”
Added McCoy: “There are a number of things that go on in the community that help people achieve their dream of business — maybe it’s [a citizen] owning their own business or working for a major corporation, but in my view, outside of education, the next best thing besides that to help people move from where they are to where they want to be is a job opportunity, an economic opportunity. I saw the benefits of that, growing up in a very poor, rural community.”
‘It gives them opportunity’
Dressed dapperly in a suit, his black jacket casually unbuttoned, few would imagine that McCoy’s childhood was spent on a farm in what he calls “the low-rent district of the Highlands” — Franklin, N.C.
According to the town’s website, 3,940 people call Franklin home, and while the site currently boasts that the town is “recognized as the trade center of southwestern North Carolina,” growing up, McCoy saw a different side.
“I grew up on a farm in the meat business of my father’s meat company,” he said. “It’s hard to call him a butcher because he really ran the business, but he was a butcher, too.”
McCoy can’t put his finger on what exactly drove his foray into the business world. Perhaps it was where he was raised or perhaps it was his father’s experience in owning a small business, but it wasn’t completely intentional and he was not one of those children who, growing up, knew exactly what he wanted to be.
He also couldn’t have imagined he would and up as president of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.
“I, in my naivety as a kid, thought that government and elected officials drove [economic development,]” McCoy said. “There is an element of that that is true, but what I didn’t appreciate is what the economic development entity of the community was doing on behalf of those elected officials. When I started working at the chamber of commerce in Winston-Salem, I started to understand how it really worked and that there are organizations dedicated to doing just that and that the work that they do lifts people out of poverty, it gives them great opportunity and it resolves huge social and community problems in some places.”
What McCoy found at Winston-Salem’s chamber, he said, is how the work “puts you in a place of working with those people to hopefully help them lower their hurdles so they can go do what they want to do and do it well.”
That’s also what brought him to the Forsyth County chamber.
“I was at [the Atlanta firm] for about a year,” he said. “It was this huge trade association — they had about 15,000 members. What I found out during that process was that it was a great organization but lobbying for a national trade association was not [for me.] What I found valuable about chamber of commerce work I did not find within a trade association. That’s when a friend of mine serendipitously called and said, ‘you should consider the [Forsyth County chamber opening.]”
‘The next level of developmental maturity’
By the summer of 2005, McCoy, who had been in Georgia for only a little over a year, called Forsyth’s chamber his work home.
“It was great, but I look back now and think, ‘God, how stupid were they?’” he said, laughing. “I was 26 or 27 and I remember the first meeting that I had was with [Forsyth County News reporter] Harris Blackwood and [publisher] John Hall. Harris Blackwood looked at me and literally, his first question was, ‘how old are you?’ I didn’t want to answer at first. I was so taken aback by it, so I said, ‘why does it matter?’ and he said, ‘right, why does it matter?’ So I said, ‘I’m 27,’ and he said, ‘well, why do you think a 27 year old could do this job?’ It was a huge risk for them to take and I certainly continue to be very grateful that they did, but I think about that now and they really ran a big risk in doing that.”
That risk has paid off, however, as shown by this year’s numbers, which mark “the best year that [Forsyth County] has ever had in economic development projects.”
“[We’ve created] well over 1,000 jobs, over $150 million in new capital investment and that is a good bit more than we’ve ever had in a single year,” McCoy said. “I think a lot of that is the direct result of the investment that has been made in economic development and the partnership that we have with Forsyth County and the board of commissioners and the development authority. Where we are now is doing this big, comprehensive economic development plan. We’ve never done anything like this before – nothing of this size – and we’re engaging community members more than we ever have before.”
Ultimately, the goal is to create a “much more sophisticated strategy around how to help startups and small technology firms and have a very focused approach to those key industry segments that we know will drive a sustainable economy over time,” McCoy said.
The chamber isn’t just focusing on economic development, though, having this year added a new position — vice president of community development — to the organization’s staff.
The role is key in creating a sustainable Forsyth, McCoy said.
“That sort of reverses the idea of economic development,” he said. “Instead, what we’re doing is working with leaders in communities and neighborhoods around Forsyth County to identify how they want their segments to grow and then how we can help the commercial portion of that to create that vision. The comprehensive plan identified all these nodes, so how can we work with the private business community and commercial developers to create a product to achieve that vision. That is the next level of developmental maturity as a community.”
With Forsyth County expected to double in population by 2040, that development, and creating sustainable businesses, is what the chamber will be focusing on, at least for the next few years.
McCoy said after more than 10 years in the community, he hopes to continue to be a part of that vision.
“For the last 12 years, I have had more fun than is allowable in a job, and it’s never felt like work, either,” he said. “I’m sure one day, the right thing will come along, but it’s a really damn high hurdle to cross. I’m going to take that passion and invest it [here] until I’m no longer wanted or needed, which may happen too, but I plan to be here for as long as they will have me and as long as I’m useful to the community.”
With opportunity looking the county directly in the eye, McCoy may be here for a while.
“We have a blank canvas,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity, and that opportunity is, we can make this what we want.”