During a time when the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce increased its membership by 23 percent, a Blue Ribbon panel was appointed to explore strategic issues and the initiatives that could stem from them, said Steve Wilson, the Chamber board of directors' chairman.

He was a speaker at the Chamber's annual State of Our Community program on Wednesday, joined by Aiken School Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt, Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh and Aiken County Council Chairman Ronnie Young. They appeared on a video during the luncheon.

The guest speaker was Richard Lutovsky, the retired president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

With cutbacks hitting the Savannah River Site in recent years, that should shake Aiken County out of its complacency, Wilson said.

“We have so much going for us,” said Wilson, an SRP Federal Credit Union executive. “But our future is not assured. As Aiken has done in similar episodes in the past, now is the time to pull together, to look over our options and decide a path forward.”

As she approaches her sixth year as superintendent, Everitt cited the School District's improvement in the graduation rate and the decline in dropouts.

“There are more opportunities we have put in place that are working, like the ninth-grade academies and our online personal computer programs,” she said. “… There are more career and technology classes at the Career Center and the home school. That's very important for students to be work-ready and college-ready.”

The new Aiken County government center should be completed in 2014, Young said. A home base EMS station is now located in an empty box on York Street in Aiken. Two more substations are planned – one in the northeastern part of the county and the other in the Silver Bluff/Beech Island area.

Economic development continues to move forward, Young said, since January, Tognum, Bridgestone and Recleim have made new investments of $70 million and added 210 new jobs.

A key initiative is starting to prove successful, Cavanaugh said. The Department of Public Safety saw an increase in violent crime in 2010 and adapted a program used in High Point, N.C. Those involved in such crimes were notified that they could come in for help.

“Six of them said they wanted to have a better life and reached out,” Cavanaugh said. “Five of them are taking the GED.”

Lutovsky recommended the value of Chamber members traveling to other communities. During his tenure in Asheville, he and Chamber members traveled to cities as diverse as Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas, and Quebec City.

All had much to offer, Lutovsky said, such as the Canadian city's cleanliness, beauty and signage.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.

He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.