A turning point?

Published 9:45 am Saturday, March 24, 2012

The commanding voice of a third-generation radio man might have alone captured his audience’s attention.

But it was Michael Clark’s daring, not his decibels, that had the crowd abuzz at Thursday night’s annual meeting of the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Clark, vice president of WLQM-AM/FM and the chamber’s new president, stepped on our toes, snapped us out of our collective complacency, and struck the tricky balance between optimism and realism that is too often lacking in civic leadership.

Will Thursday be remembered as the night that the sleeping giant that is the Franklin-Southampton business community finally awoke?

If so, we can thank Clark, who is determined to bring the Chamber — and, by extension, the business and professional community it represents — off the sideline and on to the playing field where Franklin and Southampton County’s prosperity will be won or lost in the years ahead.

Clark offered up the obligatory but sincere pleasantries that are staples of a Chamber president’s acceptance speech. He thanked his wife, Marti; mom, Brenda; and mother-in-law, Muriel Blythe, and gave a moving tribute to his late father, Pete, who inspired in his son a commitment to community service that is rare in Michael’s generation. The new president commended his predecessor, Kevin Sutton, and his fellow board members. He plugged the value of Chamber membership and committed the organization to a year of aggressive recruitment and retention. They were appropriate and necessary words all — and the sum of what is typical for such an affair.

Instead of sending the crowd on its merry way, Clark asked his audience’s indulgence for “a few personal thoughts” that he delivered with the zeal of a televangelist but the sincerity of one who is heavily invested in his hometown.

He called for “tough decisions” by elected and appointed leadership.

He chided the isolationist thinking that holds us back in a global economy.

He advocated a “new, bold course of action” with “growth and prosperity as its foundation.”

He challenged the business community to speak out and demand more accountability from elected leadership.

He acknowledged the elephant in the room, public education, and said from the podium what is too often discussed in hushed tones: Our schools must do better in order to provide a quality workforce for the future.

He called for “improvement in all facets of economic development” and lamented the shrinking middle class, the backbone of a successful community.

He implored Franklin and Southampton County government officials to talk more to each other.

He dared to utter the “C” word: consolidation.

In the audience were a couple of Franklin mayoral candidates, a third City Council member and two Southampton County supervisors.

Clark delivered a loud, clear and convincing message. The business community is asleep no longer.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.