Johnny Murphy readily admits that when he, Charlie Stafford and Bob Ward chartered the Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce in 1985, they were making its operations up as they went.
“We were winging it,” Murphy said. “We did not know what a chamber of commerce’s real function was, other than we knew we needed to have a chamber of commerce.”
The RHBC Chamber and Richmond Hill both have grown significantly since those three business leaders signed the charter on Sept. 4, 1985. The Chamber started with only about 25 members, according to Murphy, who served as the first board chairman.
The Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce is now 350 members strong, serving one of the fastest-growing communities in the state.
“It exceeded my expectations,” Murphy said.
The Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 30th anniversary Thursday with a cocktail party at Fish Tales restaurant on the Ogeechee River. A big crowd enjoyed food, drinks, live entertainment and trips down memory lane.
“In 1985, the Chamber slogan was, ‘Richmond Hill – a great place to live,’ and 30 years later it’s an even better place to live, work and play. The Chamber has been a big part of that,” current board chairman Mike Sisco said.
Jimmy Burnsed recalled his four years as Chamber chairman, from 1991 to 1995. The only board chair to serve longer than one year, Burnsed good-naturedly attributed his four-year tenure to his habit of “winding up with jobs that nobody else wants.”
The RHBC Chamber was still in its infancy when Burnsed began as board chairman. He referenced the crowd of people for Thursday’s celebration as evidence of how far the Chamber and the community have come.
“You’re representatives of the growth that we’ve had,” Burnsed said. “The Chamber has gone on to much bigger and better things since the early ‘90s, and I’m so proud of the work that the Chamber has done.”
From the ground up
Stafford was looking for a location to build in the early 1970s, and he and his wife Mary Lois decided on her hometown of Richmond Hill. Murphy also had a family connection, moving to Richmond Hill and becoming involved in real estate after seeing the city on a visit to his sister’s home.
By the mid-1980s, Stafford and Murphy each were developing several subdivisions. Combined, they produced 550 new houses in Richmond Hill, which had a total of 611 homes when they began building.
“We decided that we were going to double the population of Richmond Hill and south Bryan County with this new growth and new subdivisions,” Murphy said. “To double the population again, we would have to bring on 6,700 new residential lots at the same time.”
The developers needed people to move into those homes, and the Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce was born.
“The goal was to try to get the name Richmond Hill as a household name in Savannah,” Murphy said.
Stafford saw the city’s potential. He said Richmond Hill had “all the ingredients for a nice bedroom community,” including “great churches, a good local government, excellent access into Savannah and, most important, it had great schools.”
“Our job was very clear,” Stafford said. “We just had to get people down here to Richmond Hill. We had to create as much traffic as we could, and the community would actually sell itself.”
But that wasn’t easy in the early days of the RHBC Chamber.
Highways 17 and 144 were two-lane roads, with just a caution light at their intersection. Richmond Hill had only a handful of businesses.
“After 8 o’clock, you couldn’t buy milk,” Murphy said.
Another hurdle, according to Murphy, was that the only bank in the community was not extending construction loans to builders. Interest rates on mortgages at that time were 14 to 15 percent.
“The banks in Savannah would not even think about doing Richmond Hill,” Murphy said. “We didn’t even have a red light.”
One step the upstart Chamber took was to produce the first publication promoting the benefits of living in Richmond Hill. The RHBC Chamber paid $6,000 to have 5,000 of the full-color brochures made.
“We stuffed envelope after envelope mailing this to every doctor’s office, every business in Savannah,” Murphy said, “hoping they would put that on their countertops and their desks and people would pick it up, just to start learning the name Richmond Hill.”
Another marketing strategy, when Burnsed was board chairman, was to purchase a four-page spread touting Richmond Hill in the magazine the Savannah Chamber of Commerce sent to people who inquired about the Hostess City.
“So everybody who asked about information about Savannah got information about Richmond Hill, and we saw them start coming,” Burnsed said.
And they have kept coming.
Through efforts such as sponsoring the Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival and establishing the Richmond Hill Convention and Visitors Bureau and Development Authority of Bryan County, the Richmond Hill/Bryan County Chamber of Commerce has attracted an increasing number of residents and businesses. Bryan County’s population is expected to double from 30,000 people in 2010 to nearly 60,000 in 2030, according to projections by state analysts.
“From here on out, it’s going to be almost anybody that opens up a business will be successful,” Murphy predicted.
Richmond Hill is realizing that potential Stafford saw three decades ago. He concluded his remarks at Thursday’s celebration with a heartfelt thank-you to the crowd.
“I would like to thank every one of y’all for giving me the opportunity to work and earn a living in Bryan County,” Stafford said.