Chamber Chat - Prelude to Progress: Part 1

Jun 04

By Meg Moss


Over the next few weeks, the Chamber Chat articles will aim to educate the Sanford Area community about the cumulative financial and intellectual contributions by the private and public sectors to Sanford and Lee County’s economic development.

If it’s true that the Sanford area is on the cusp of something great economically, it surely didn’t happen by accident. In this first article – a series of stories produced by the Sanford Area Growth Alliance in conjunction with The Sanford Herald – the history of local economic development is described, illustrating how and why Lee County’s team approach has it positioned for prosperity. 

The task of economic development in Lee County once rested on the shoulders of just one man. And that man, Hal Siler – who was the face of Sanford’s Chamber of Commerce for parts of three decades – had a profound impact on the economic landscape of the community. SAGA Economic Development Executive Director Bob Joyce stated that “Siler’s 25-year record of success is unmatched by any other similar size community.” Siler and other leaders who held the post – including Scott Swindell and Bob Heuts – collectively recruited a lengthy list of industries and business to the area.

But in a global economy more competitive than ever, the modern economic development effort is a complex puzzle requiring much more than just a good location and a ready work force. In the Sanford area, that work is now done by a larger team. The creation of the team had its genesis back in 2008 when a committee of private citizens, who called themselves “The Second Century Project,” recognized the need for a broad-based effort to actively promote Lee County’s unique attributes; and they developed a business plan. Kirk Bradley, a Second Century Project leader, said that without the Second Century Project, it’s doubtful Sanford and Lee County would be positioned as well as they are today. “Besides the Well-Centered brand, our community got a complete assessment of where we stood from an economic development standpoint,” Bradley said. “A third party provided an objective scorecard of where we ranked on important quality of life metrics.”

Phase I of the Second Century Project involved a community branding strategy, the aim of which was the telling of a consistent story about Lee County. Phase II involved a multi-year marketing campaign and the execution of specific economic development action plan goals. One of the most significant of those goals became the largest achievement that came from Second Century: the creationof one public/private, non-profit enterprise for Lee County’s economic development.

A merger of the Lee County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), and the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, the leaders envisioned, would improve funding, coordination and leadership of the economic development effort. After a successful capital campaign was held to jump-start funding, a detailed program of work was developed. This program of work focused on goals in nine areas: New Business Recruitment; the Marketing of Lee County; Education Workforce and Leadership Development; the Retention and Expansion of Existing Business; Small Business and Entrepreneur Development; Visitor Services; Enhancement of Quality of Life; Product and Infrastructure Development; and Agriculture Development.

The elected and civic leadership came together to create this organization—a true public-private partnership for the good of our community. The Sanford-Lee County Partnership for Prosperity hired professional staff (including Joyce, who had been the chamber’s top executive) and morphed into the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, commonly known as SAGA. SAGA’s work is governed by a local board of directors, its stakeholders and investors. It includes a separate chamber of commerce board and visitor services group, along with numerous working committees. SAGA CEO Joy Thrash states that “SAGA’s strength comes from the public-private partnership, and the fact that all involved entities are collaborating to move forward SAGA’s vision.” She stated that SAGA is the culmination of many hands focused on one work.

To read these series stories in full, please visit Our website also includes videotaped interviews with key community leaders that help us better understand the teamwork involved in SAGA and the goal of economic prosperity for Lee County.

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