A legislative advisor for former Gov. Mark Sanford and the state Chamber of Commerce has been named the new chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Carl Blackstone, 43, now a legislative advisor with the law firm Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, will take the reins of the Midlands’ largest and most influential business advocacy group on Monday. He replaces Ike McLeese, who died of heart ailments in October after leading the chamber for 19 years.
“Anytime you have somebody who represented the organization for 19 years, those are big shoes to fill,” said Chamber chairman Holt Chetwood, president of the Midlands market for Wells Fargo bank. “But there is tremendous opportunity for Carl to build on that. We think he’s ideally suited.”
Blackstone, who has lived in Columbia for 13 years, has a strong background in public policy, government relations and strategic communications. He presently serves as a government relations advisor for the clients of Copper Dome Strategies, a subsidiary of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, lobbying the S.C. General Assembly, the governor’s office and the state’s Congressional delegation.
The Chamber did not release Blackstone’s salary. McLeese was paid $172,500 a year.
Blackstone told The State Tuesday his first order of business would be to meet with staff members, business leaders, local political officials and regional business organizations.
One of his priorities, he said, will be to continue to build regional ties.
“You can’t move forward if you are pointing fingers,” he said. “We need to find one or two issues that Richland and Lexington can agree on. I plan to be across the river next week.”
Blackstone also said he will focus on getting up to speed on military issues, which were a priority for his predecessor McLeese. The chamber has in the past taken a leading role in protecting and expanding missions at Fort Jackson in Columbia, the nation’s largest training base, and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover.
“The economic impact of the military in this region is significant and we need to support as best we can the leadership there,” he said.
McLeese died Oct. 29 after suffering a heart attack in September and undergoing heart surgery. He took the reins of the Chamber in 1994, guiding it from $3.8 million in debt to solvency and prominence as the leading voice for business in the region. When the Midlands lost Southwest Airlines to the Upstate in 2010, he worked behind the scenes to build a coalition of governments and business groups to present a united face to help bring in future opportunities.
He also served as a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, and was given much of the credit for Fort Jackson’s gains in the 2005 round of base realignment and closings, and McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover remaining open.
Blackstone was chosen over more than two dozen candidates from the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast, Chetwood said. Fewer than 10 were interviewed for the position. Those on the short list also were reviewed by a committee of 15 community stakeholders, including Chamber members, supporters and small and minority business owners.
The number of interested candidates “speaks to the credibility of the Chamber and that the Columbia region is a place that very is very attractive to many people,” Chetwood said.
Blackstone rose above the other candidates, the chairman said, because of his vision for the Chamber, his experience in public policy issues and his temperament and personality.
“We have the right person for the job,” Chetwood said.
Carl Blackstone, at-a-glance
Issues facing the Chamber
As Blackstone takes over the reins of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, he will face several major areas of focus, including:
Improving regional relations
Protecting Fort Jackson/McEntire from military budget cuts
Making the Midlands more business friendly