A Talk with the Chamber President

A Look Inside the Howard County Chamber of Commerce

A young man raised in the ever-swelling city of Atlanta, Leonard McClarty watched the construction of the Georgia Dome—the predecessor to the city’s Mercedes Benz Stadium—and he wondered why someone had chosen that particular spot to build. Why not down the street or across town? His curiosity only grew as he did, leading him to seek—and earn—an undergraduate degree in political science with an urban studies concentration and a master’s degree in city planning.

Now, McClarty has years of experience with several cities and counties under his belt, and he is proudly Howard County’s chamber of commerce president. He’s still asking the questions about how and why. He’s also asking what it will take to ensure the vitality of the county’s business community.

“I love chambers of commerce," Leonard says. "In this environment, I can, in some respects, be in the middle of my economic development work and business development. I can work with government but not be in government. I can work with businesses and private industry.”

As the only chamber in the county, his team has gladly toiled to bring the business community together to help the county thrive. During 2019, the group spearheaded its first intercity visit in a program called Howard L.E.A.D.S. (Leadership. Excellence. Advocacy. Development. Sustainability.). The chamber staff and fifteen community leaders met with representatives from Somerset, New Jersey because of its similarity to Howard County. They discussed strategies for historic preservation, downtown revitalizations, housing, environmental sustainability, flood mitigation, community health and public-private partnerships. 

The Howard County team proves that chambers of commerce are about more than networking. This year, they also partnered with the Howard County Economic Development Authority to host the first Small Business Summit. The growing Women’s Leadership Conference and Cyber Conferences also seek to provide a level of support and opportunity across various interests.

While the chamber benefits from engaging a good number of senior business professionals in their circle of active participants, staff are careful to ensure that opportunities are available for anyone who has a genuine interest in bettering the business community in the county. The chamber supports businesses of all sizes and tenures.

“We work closely with the Economic Development Authority, the Small Business Development Center and other like groups. We also hold a Small Business Roundtable. We pride ourselves on being able to be a conduit to small business,” Leonard says.

Diversity and inclusion efforts abound at the chamber in other ways, as well.

“We are very conscious of … panel dynamics to ensure that we are age, ethnicity, gender, and industry diverse," Leonard says. "We are intentional about inclusion. For example, our board of directors includes 17 men and 17 women. We have various ethnicities represented. We are age diverse. I have found that people appreciate seeing representation that includes their age, gender, ethnicity and other differentiators.” 

Leonard spends a great deal of his time speaking about Howard County and economic development and his team participates in various conferences and trade shows. They have even bigger dreams for the coming year.

“The Chamber plans to institute a Young Professionals Conference. We have a Young Professionals Network program (YPN) that frequently hosts mixers and professional development seminars, but the conference will be a first,” Leonard says.

From the department of community affairs in another state agency to two municipal economic development groups and running a southern chamber of commerce for 10 years, Leonard has found home and purpose in Howard County.

“It’s been close to five years now. I feel like I’m making a difference here.”

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