When Joe Frank Harris Jr. speaks about the bell-ringing campaign he developed as interim president of the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce, he can’t stop talking. That’s how fired up he is about the program that has seen 514 people put to work in Bartow County.
And, those 514 jobs equate to $11.32 million in earned wages.
“It feels so good,” said Harris, now the Chamber’s permanent president and CEO. “It’s hard to put it into words. Your heart is warmed. You feel like you’re helping people.”
As the Buy Bartow-Work Bartow initiative officially kicked off last year in April, Bartow County's 11.6 percent unemployment rate had fallen from the 12.7 percent that started 2010, but still topped the state's jobless rate of 10.4 percent.
A former attorney, Harris left his job in AFLAC insurance sales after he was picked to head the member organization focused on advancing business and economic growth. He implemented Buy Bartow-Work Bartow last year in January.
With each new job created, business representatives ring the bell in the old First Baptist Church. One woman had tears streaming down her face as she rang the bell last year, Harris said.
“This has come to represent hope,” said Harris, son of former, two-term Georgia governor Joe Frank Harris. “People who are unemployed, they want to work. They just haven’t found the right thing.”
The idea came to the younger Harris when he saw friends lose their houses in the recession. He remembered a Buy Bartow campaign 15 years ago when he was the Chamber's board chairman.
The goal is for residents to spend money right here at home, stimulating Bartow County's economy and the creation of local jobs to be filled with local workers.
Buying local is important, Harris said, because $100 turns into $1,200.
For example, a restaurant owner will use money from its customers to buy food, and to pay utility bills, other expenses and employees, who then go and spend money themselves.
“You want to have a cycle where that money keeps turning over,” Harris said. “I hope that when people see this, they feel guilty about going shopping in Cobb County.”
Then, Harris saw a small bell that hangs on the frame of a door leading into the Chamber’s lobby. That bell rings when the Chamber signs a new member.
“I’m thinking where is there a bigger bell?” he said.
That’s when Harris remembered seeing the boarded-up church bell as a child. After talking with County Commissioner Clarence Brown, the campaign was born.
By the beginning of December, the bell-ringing campaign had met its initial goal of putting 500 locals to work, representing a 1 percent dip in the unemployment rate.
LakePoint's Earl Ehrhart spoke at the celebratory ceremony, vowing to make local hiring and buying a priority for the Emerson sports complex expected to create thousands of jobs and expressing appreciation to the community to which he said God must have led developers, The Daily Tribune News reported.
Harris' campaign also has received a good response outside Bartow County, he said. At state Chamber of Commerce events, others ask if they can use the idea.
“I’ve always thought Bartow County could lead the world,” Harris said. “We have great leadership. Bartow County is going to be a mecca. We have so many good things happening in Bartow County. We’re going to make it.”
The county ended 2011 with almost 900 more who had jobs than were employed a year earlier and a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, which even with workforce growth, was down more than a point from the final 2010 rate of 11.7 percent.
When Harris visits local businesses, he asks how the Chamber can help make those cash registers ring.
“If we’re not helping bring in money then what good is a Chamber membership?” he said.
The next goal is to get a total of 1,000 people employed. After that, the goal will continue to increase in increments of 500 jobs.
“They say, ‘When are you going to stop?’” Harris said. “[We will] when everybody has a job.”