Virginia Gibbs is retiring after a decade at the helm of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. Gibbs was honored in a retirement reception Tuesday by local leaders for her exemplary efforts in bringing people together during her time as CEO.
Gibbs sat down recently with Fayette Newspapers to reflect on her time with the Chamber.
Her role in the community has been unique and, based on the comments given Tuesday night, vital to the fabric of Fayette County. Before she came to the Chamber, Gibbs found success in the plastics industry. Her mindset is that of an engineer, tuned to identify problems and solve them, but she was able to meld that mindset with innate people skills in her role as CEO of the Chamber. In that role, she sought to solve problems while navigating the often messier interpersonal challenges that come with local politics.
“My background is really as a mechanical materials engineer,” Gibbs said. “Coming to the Chamber was a definite change of career path. When you’re in the plastics industry, you get to see really how the economy works. You get to see all different types of industries and understand the products they make. In some ways you get a broad perspective of the economy because of that. While it sounds like it’s two different worlds, in a lot of ways there’s some real similarities.”
The through line, Gibbs said, is the necessity to identify problems and seek solutions.
“I like taking complex things and putting them into simple ways of looking at things, simple frameworks. Sometimes the people part of it is the most complex scenario,” Gibbs said. “How do you take an opportunity and really create clarity for where the challenges and opportunities are?”
She originally came to Fayette County in 1991 with her husband, a bankruptcy attorney practicing in Atlanta.
“We chose Fayette County because I was calling on Panasonic. We drove around and I just fell in love with it,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs took the role of CEO of the Fayette Chamber in March of 2004. Now, the chamber’s executive committee is doing a nationwide search for her replacement. Gibbs said the person that fills her shoes should bring a passion for bringing people together.
“One of the things we do really well is set the table to bring people together. We don’t have the power to make a decision, any authority, but we have the relationships. We have the power to say we need to come together to talk about this,” Gibbs said. “I think, in this, I’ve always tried to remember it’s not really about any one particular issue. It’s much bigger than that. How do we really find a place we can reach consensus and reach positive steps forward?”
To make progress toward that end, Gibbs has spearheaded the Fayette Visioning effort, which has brought together community leaders to discuss what Fayette County is today and what it should strive to be.
The Visioning effort involved some fairly extensive data collection about Fayette County’s demographics and local industries, including surveys of residents and panels that sought to understand the mindset of Fayette residents. Gibbs felt a lot of interesting insights came from the data collected through the Visioning effort.
“One of the things I think Visioning sort of brought out, comparing 2003 to 2013, is where our major employment sectors are. It tells a really interesting story. The top three in 2003 were retail, manufacturing, and construction. If you fast-forward to 2013, retail is still number one,” Gibbs said, but healthcare, social services, and accommodation round out the top industries.
“In manufacturing, we saw some of those companies close. I think it was a really substantial shift in our community,” Gibbs said.
The elephant in the room of recent shifts in Fayette County is Pinewood Studios. It’s still hard to say just what impact the studios will have on the local economy, Gibbs said.
“On a big scale, I think the significance for our state is huge,” Gibbs said of the burgeoning Georgia film industry.
She pointed to a recent event at Sandy Creek High School where representatives of Leadership Georgia came to hear a presentation on the high school’s new animation program, which dovetails into the film industry.
“This is the first time they’ve ever come to Fayette County,” Gibbs said of Leadership Georgia. “Literally, you brought a couple hundred of the best and the brightest from across Georgia to Fayette County. The big theme they spoke about was the film and entertainment industry.”
Gibbs said the various businesses that have sprung up to support Pinewood are encouraging evidence of entrepreneurship at its best.
“It’s almost like River’s Elementary (which is now Pinewood-owned and sits across the road from the studios) has become this incubator of entrepreneurial business that are supporting Pinewood, but not just Pinewood. They’ve got the ability to support people throughout the southeast. I think that’s ultimately the impact, those spinoff entrepreneurs.”
A similar effort to Fayette Visioning undertaken in the 1980’s is credited with helping to bring Piedmont Fayette, one of the biggest economic drivers in the county. The film industry appears to be the next big thing, and Gibbs said she felt there was great value in bringing people together to understand how the community wants that industry to fit into the vision for the county’s future.
“When you talk about politics in particular, I think it really goes to keeping that perspective that we really have an amazing community here and we have challenges like every community does. We have really smart people. If we bring those people together and find common ground where we can make productive progress, then we can really make that progess. It’s sort of a personal philosophy that I always think there’s a positive path forward. I think that always starts with people sitting down together,” Gibbs said.
Part of the Visioning effort has been an emphasis on diversity, as the demographics of the county have changed over time. Gibbs said the response has been excellent.
“It’s been amazing. So many different groups have asked us to come talk to them. Just share an update, what is this Visioning thing? It’s been incredible to meet all types of people, all different backgrounds. They all care. They want to be a part of it. It’s been very reaffirming that people want a positive path forward. I think people are tired of the divisiveness,” Gibbs said.
Though it seems unlikely that a person like Gibbs hasn’t planned what’s next for her, she said she hasn’t.
“I know there is something next, but I truly don’t know what it is,” Gibbs said. “I think it’s really hard to figure out what’s next when you’re in the middle of trying to do a really good job at what you’re doing now. I think it’s really healthy to take a pause, just to sort of breath and refresh. Open your filter if you will to what is out there, what am I being called to do?”
Her thoughts at this time are for shepherding the Chamber through a transition to new leadership. She said she has no plans to move away from Fayette County and will be present to make sure that transition goes smoothly.
“The thing that’s really important to me is taking care of the awesome staff we have, making sure the continuity of transition is exemplary. It’s why I gave such a long notice. It’s sort of weird to give two-and-a-half months notice. I want to be able to hand this off so the organization succeeds,” Gibbs said.
Fayette Visioning will continue without Gibbs’ direct leadership, and she has high hopes for the effect it can have. While the groundwork has been laid, the implementation of a vision is still in the future.
“It’s not ended. For implementation of visioning to be successful, the community has to own it. I think that’s what the intent of the process has been from day one. Through the process, some really great community members have come forward and said ‘Hey, I want to be a part of this,'” Gibbs said. “I feel really, really encouraged by the folks that are going to be leading those committees. I hope to find a way to stay involved in it.”
And the crux of the matter, she said, always returns to opening dialogue and strengthening connections throughout the community.
“I think leadership is a really hard thing right now. I think the questions and the issues are very complex and interrelated. I think the solutions ultimately come back to relationships,” Gibbs said.
That effort to connect, rather than divide, is what Gibbs hopes her decade with the Chamber are defined by.
“I think we have the opportunity as a community to go through the many changes that we’re going through and do it better than other communities have done it. But that really requires us coming together and getting to know each other. I am eternally optimistic about the power of people understanding how, when you have differences of perspectives or gifts and you can come together, you become more than just one plus one,” Gibbs said.
“If that is my legacy, I’m really happy. I think there are a lot of good people here.”