Dave Welch, the incoming chairman for the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, is a neighbor of mine. The soft-spoken CEO of Stone Energy lives down the street, next door to 2005 chamber Chairman Tyron Picard. The two share more than property lines and chamber leadership roles; they also love to tend their own lawns. One day last spring, a little old lady was driving through the neighborhood and inquired of Tyron, do-rag donned and wielding a weed-eater, whether he was taking on more yard work. As Dave and I chuckled over that story a few days later, he quipped: “Wonder if Tyron saved her name, because if the price of natural gas doesn’t go up soon, I may be looking to make some extra money.”

Although quiet of demeanor and small in stature, Dave is a great wit and a strong leader. In spite of soft gas prices, last year Stone Energy set a new pace in employee giving to the United Way of Acadiana, doubtless because Dave inspired his team to embrace the agency’s mission even more vigorously in tough times. Having served with him on long-range planning committees for both the chamber and the United Way, I witnessed his outcome-based focus in setting priorities while also urging us all to think outside the box. His term at the helm of the region’s largest business advocacy group comes at a pivotal time for both the chamber and our community.

Dave is all about focus and results. He has distilled the 2010 chamber agenda into four key areas — public policy, education, entrepreneurship and member services— and committees are meeting now to set what Dave calls “specific focal milestones.” The biggest surprise in last week’s installation banquet speech was his announcement to immediately pursue a chamber PAC. For decades behind the scenes, chamber leaders have squelched this idea for fear it was an inappropriate role — perhaps even indelicate — for a chamber in this town. Not only did Dave bring the initiative forward, it passed the executive committee unanimously two days after the banquet and was expected to pass the full board this week as this column went to press. “Much of our agenda is tied to the political process, and this chamber has made tremendous progress through the years by working outside the system,” says Dave. “But things change and to get us to the next level, we can’t be outside the process any more.”

The group has also hired its first lobbyist, Gifford Briggs, who does double duty as the vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and is in the process of relocating to Lafayette from Baton Rouge. “This is the only additional client I am taking on,” says the 34-year-old Lafayette native, an ESA grad who studied business and marketing at LSU and Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. He’ll be commuting to Baton Rouge four to five days a week, representing two clients with overlapping interests. “What’s good for Lafayette is typically good for energy companies,” Briggs says. Bruce Conque, the chamber’s vice-president of community affairs, welcomes both moves as the chamber embraces a new level of activism. “This completes our package,” he says. “It’s the next logical step for us. And our lobbying efforts won’t just be at the state level, which is what most people think when they think about lobbyists. We’re also going to engage at the local level with the school board and consolidated government.”

That’s good news for those who understand that Lafayette (and, by association, the region for which our city and parish serve as the hub) is teetering on the summit of greatness. But our stars will be aligned for only so long. A dozen other communities across the South — and yes, we need to position ourselves beyond the state boundaries — are similarly poised and aggressively moving forward. We must have competent, focused, effective leadership at all levels of local government to make sure we don’t squander this opportunity. Perhaps more good candidates will step forward to help build the dream when they know they can count on the strength of the chamber to support them.

Our time has come if we have the team in place to grab the ring. Dave Welch closed his speech with the beloved New Orleans Saints’ cheer “Who Dat?” so I’ll close this column with another:

We Believe.

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