Main and Mulberry Podcast – Christine Korling-Torres, Hardeman County

Between Memphis and Jackson in Southwest, Tennesssee is Hardeman County: a collection of towns including Bolivar, Grand Junction, Hickory Valley, Hornsby, Middleton, Pocahontas, Saulsbury, Silerton, Toone, and Whiteville. Each of these towns are small enough, but they’re rich with history. Christine Korling-Torres shares her experience collaborating with Local Government to create trails, develop activity centers, support local businesses, and recruit growth. There’s so much to do and see in Hardeman County’s various towns, and we’re glad to hear all about it.

Transcript:

AB:

Welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m Anna Bell. And today I’m excited to have with us, the Executive Director of Hardeman County’s Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee, Christine Korling-Torres. Christine, thank you so much for making the time to be with us today.

CKT:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

AB:

Absolutely. Yeah. I’m really excited to learn a lot more about Hardeman County. So let’s dive right in and talk a little bit about, you know, where you’re located in Tennessee. For those of us these listeners that might not be familiar with the state and the area, can you tell us exactly, you know, where you’re located in Tennessee and how we can get to you?

CKT:

Sure. Hardeman County is located kind of a, it’s a great location. We’re kind of centralized between Memphis and Jackson. So we’re kind of just nestled right in the middle there. Southwest Tennessee, and that’s where it’s at. I mean, that’s where it’s happening.

AB:

Good. Alright, perfect. You’ve set us up geographically now, so we know how to get to you. Christine, are you from the area? How long have you been in, in Hardeman County?

CKT:

Well, my family and I moved here almost a year ago. We always loved Southwestern, Tennessee, but we were willing to move anywhere in Tennessee because we love the state. So I’m new to the area.

AB:

So you’re getting to see the county with fresh eyes.

CKT:

Absolutely. We hadn’t really had any awareness about Hardeman County in general, but we knew we loved the area. So when we went house hunting, we found a home here in Hardeman County and we just, you know, we fell in love with it. We bought it and we just kind of dove right into the community. And so when the position came up for Executive Director of the Chamber, I just, I just jumped right on that position because I had that kind of experience in the past. I’d worked for chambers before. I was a small business owner at one time and I sold that business. And so I felt that I had a good experience bundle to bring to the table. And I’m just so thankful to be here. I’m just really enjoying it.

AB:

Oh, that’s wonderful. Yes. That you’re able to bring that experience, especially with being a small business owner at one time, into the chamber that is all about small local, business. So that’s great. What small business did you have, if you don’t mind sharing with us?

CKT:

No problem. I owned and operated a wedding and portrait photography business, and I had a brick and mortar studio. I started out as a home business that grew and grew, and then I ended up moving it into a centralized town location. And then I ended up selling that and going into government. I worked in government for about 15 years and had that studio and then I went back into government after I sold the studio.

AB:

Wow. So you’re very much aware of the small business grind, right? The multiple hats.

CKT:

Yes. Oh yeah.

AB:

I love hearing that. I’d like to jump right in and talk about Hardeman County. If you could kind of tell us the different cities and towns that really make up Hardeman County, give us a little detail about each town to differentiate one from another. We’d really appreciate that.

CKT:

Well, Hardeman County is I call it the jewel of Southwest Tennessee. To me, it’s like a hidden treasure. We have about 25,500 people total in the county. That’s approximate. Bolivar is the county seat, and that’s where our office is located is in Bolivar, but we are a county chamber. So we serve the entire county of Hardeman. So I would say in reviewing my demographics, Middleton/Whiteville area, they kind of come in like second or third, Whiteville and then you have Middleton. We have some smaller surrounding towns to Grand Junction, Hickory Valley, Hornsby, Solsbury. We have kind of a mixture. Bolivar is where everyone kind of centrally congregates because of primarily the businesses that are located here. But we do have some industry that are kind of spread out and Middleton, we have some industry there. Whiteville is developing a little bit more so.

AB:

Oh, that’s great. I appreciate you kind of differentiating those for us kind of sharing the different towns, but it sounds like a lot of is going on in Bolivar though. That’s really a hub. Is that

CKT:

I forget Grand Junction. I don’t know if I mentioned them, but they’re there one of our towns too.

AB:

Right. In Grand Junction and Pocahontas. Is that right?

CKT:

Technically, yes. Yeah. It’s very small, but it has rich history and I’m learning more about it all the time.

AB:

That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. Christine, let’s talk more specifically about the Hardeman County Chamber of Commerce. Can you share with us, you know, the overall mission and how you guys are just actively involved in the community?

CKT:

Well, our mission is to advocate and represent interest in Hardeman County. It goes beyond just business. Of course, business is critical, but with that comes the ability to enrich your environment, whether it’s your towns, your extended municipalities [inaudible] with government. We’re not part of government, but we collaborate with government to try to get things done for community members. So for example collaborating with Be More Hardeman County, that’s through the UT extension. We’re always looking at ways to create like trails, working together or to identify places where we can put activities, like activity centers. When I say centers, I don’t mean indoor, I mean, outdoor experience. So our whole business is about supporting our businesses, recruiting new businesses to the area, enhancing our environment, and also tourism is a huge component as well.

AB:

Yes, absolutely. Most of the time when we’re speaking with chambers, tourism comes, you know, towards the top of the list, is, is that the same for you?

CKT:

Yes. And then where I came from before and our chamber, we didn’t have a vibrant tourism industry because it was primarily agriculture, but here you have your, you have industry of, thriving agriculture, but you also have a rich history as well. So there are a lot of things to do and see here. There’s outdoor activities. We have pre civil war buildings. We have a lot of buildings here that are registered in the National Register of Historic Places. So there’s a civil war history here as well. I mean, it’s a history, that’s, you know, it, it happened, it’s sad, but it happened and it’s, you know, we have to remember our history. And so there’s a lot of, you know, remembered in that way. Our courthouse is very historic. It was built in the late 1800s, right after the civil war. It replaced an existing courthouse that had been destroyed, but it still has a rich history. And in Hardeman County, that’s the focal point of the county is the courthouse, the courthouse square. Of course that part of that Southern that’s what we do. Yes. But there’s a lot to see and do here, and I’m learning more and more about our, our, our wonderful county. And everything’s within driving distance 20 minutes here, maybe 20 minutes there, 30 minutes here. Everything’s very accessible.

AB:

That’s great. Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. And I liked hearing you talk about the trails a little bit. Do you have a, some trails that you can tell us about?

CKT:

Well, we have a civil war trails, and we actually carry a little pamphlet. Yes, we carry these here so that folks can come by and pick them up and actually access them. And it tells all of the different timelines and who was involved. You get a little history in there with it. So I haven’t had a chance to participate on this adventure. Yes, it’s on my checklist. I visited a couple of, of sites where we’ve had battles. And there’s, there’s a site here called Middleburg, and I’ve been there, and it’s just hard to believe it. You just try to imagine what everything looked like at that time. And, you know, you could look around and it’s so different, I’m sure than what it was back then. And yeah, so I’m learning more, more even near Hardeman County, even just outside of our county limits, you find more of the civil war trails.

AB:

So that’s really awesome. I’d like to kind of go back for a minute though, to talk about the Hardeman County Chamber. You know, let’s talk a little bit about your members. How many members do you have right now and what kind of range of businesses are represented in your chamber?

CKT:

We have a very diverse membership. We have, you know industry, where you’re dealing with fabrication, down to your mom-and-pop yogurt shop type of business. So, and everything in between, we have 144 active members right now, and we’re doing a membership drive actually to bring more of our businesses in. The Chamber, we’re just trying to really reach out and let people know what we can offer them and find out from them what they need for us from us. COVID was so destructive in so many ways, you know, to our local business community. And so we’ve actually made an effort to reach out to those people that may not even be part of our chamber to show them, Hey, this is what we can help you with. What do you need from us? What can we do? What can we provide you with that? We actually did a survey in the community to find out what people needed and because of that, we developed a whole new member benefits program. And so as a result of that, we thought this is a perfect time for a membership drive. So people see what we, what we can bring to the table, and we’ve heard what they’ve requested that we offer. One of the great things that we’re now offering is health insurance plans that are very affordable for small businesses. We have even a travel, we’re kind of like the Hardeman County travel agency. We have a travel agency that works with chambers that we’ve worked, that we’ve partnered with. So we can actually offer those experiences and that, that special financing to our members and a lot of member-to-member benefits were identified. So we were able to save our members costs of doing business.

AB:

So, so Christine tell us, if you don’t mind, some more of those, you know, identification factors that you were hearing from your small businesses, the members that you were reaching out to for that membership program, I’d love to hear some more input that you received from those.

CKT:

Yeah. One of the things that we kept hearing is that they were really happy that we reached out to them. They were thankful that we were calling. So they wanted to have more of that one-on-one experience. And then a lot, a lot of folks asked, do you offer notary service? And we had at one point, but we didn’t at the time. We’d lost that notary.

AB:

Yeah. Individual. Yeah. That person.

CKT:

Yeah. That, that one identified person was no longer offering. So we were able to find someone that could offer that. Let me just pull up some of the wonderful things that we’re offering. Also, the social media boosting was huge. People wanted more of that, but then we also have to get people synched in to where they’re using the social media themselves. So it’s kind of an education process where we’re helping them understand that. Training classes, CDC, and Tosha, that’s some of the thing we’re plugging in because they don’t know how to access all of this information or they don’t have time. So we’re kind of like a clearing house.

AB:

Okay. Yeah.

CKT:

More idea type services, you know, just, I’m sorry to interrupt you.

AB:

No, not at all. This is, this is all wonderful. It’s definitely helping paint that picture especially during this time, like, like you said, with the COVID 19 pandemic shutdown. This has been a really hard time for a lot of small businesses. But to know that you can lean on your chamber, that the chamber is there to help serve you. That’s what it sounds like I’m hearing from you. You guys really honed in on those needs and you were able to service a lot of those small businesses that were really in need in the last few months.

CKT:

And so many of them needed to find some way to save. So we were able to bring on another member that offered office supply services that delivered weekly to Hardeman County, and it’s it would be similar to an Office Depot or Ntaples, but it’s a local family owned company that joined our chamber. So that allows them to order have their products delivered right here to them once a week. And they get a built-in chamber savings. So you can’t beat that.

AB:

No, no, no. That’s wonderful. It sounds like you guys are really supporting one another, which is a big mission I think for a lot of chambers, you know, just being met support system for your county.

CKT:

Absolutely. Some people just want to call and talk. They’re frustrated. They don’t know where else to turn. And our, our philosophy here is, is someone calls they’re going to get helped one way or another. We can’t find out the answer, we’re going to call you back. And somehow some way we’re going to dial you into wherever you need to be plugged in. So that’s our motto and that’s what we’re working towards

AB:

Have you had to lean on any of prior experience and now that you’ve had a full year under your belt as the Executive Director, is there any experience that you’ve had to lean on in the last few months in this new position?

CKT:

Well, I was fortunate in my career to have worked with some really tremendous senior leadership and executives. And I often find myself going back to things that they would say or do. Sometimes I’ll, I’ll just say, what would, what would Susan do? What would Ken do? And the, you know, I just, I look back and I think about similar instances and I try to apply those basic principles because I really feel like I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have those experiences in my past to draw from.

AB:

Absolutely. Absolutely. I’d love to know, you know, if you would share with us over the last few months, any particular challenges you might have faced as the Executive Director for Hardeman County Chamber of Commerce? Has there been anything that maybe stuck out that was a pivotal moment, maybe a challenging moment?

CKT:

Well, the whole, the whole process has been a challenge. When I first was picked up for the position, a lot of people didn’t know who I was yet because I’m new to the area. Obviously I was learning and I was meeting people, but a lot of people didn’t know who I was. And so when I first was hired, there was a little bit of buzz in the community because even though we have about 25,000 people, everyone knows everyone or they’re once removed. So everyone’s very close. And so I had to prove myself because the first thing, thought you would have is what does she know about our county? How could she possibly do the job? But that’s, that’s a huge part of it is knowing your county. But the biggest part is actually knowing how to do the job, which I felt very confident in doing and learning the county and making those connections comes easy to me. So I had to overcome that barrier, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I just come in and be positive and I just do what I have to do. And I thought my work has to speak for itself. And so that’s what I’m allowed to just let my work speak for itself.

AB:

That’s great. Yeah. So I totally understand, you know, what have been maybe some resources that you’ve used or how have you really immersed yourself into the county? Is it just taking any ample opportunity at times to go and drive around and search or what has been a resource for you?

CKT:

Well, when during the COVID closures, there was a lot of free time. So I did a lot of driving around and I do a lot of picture taking. And I, since I use my photo, I use my photography background constantly in this position for advertising, for designing our new brochures. We just designed a new full page ad, I mean, just using those skills, but what I try to do, one of the other challenges was is that some of our outlying municipalities felt like they weren’t necessarily represented by the chamber as much as the county seat. So I’ve been working really hard to overcome that. So I’ve been taking a lot of pictures. A lot of the pictures that I’ve taken prior to starting when we were closed during COVID, I’ve been using those in our social media and just kind of posting little things about our outlying communities, but I’ve I’ve taken a an extra effort to try to get to know people in each of the locations. And I do drive around a lot and I, I meet people and I enjoy people. So it’s, it’s, it’s fun. I learned a lot from people. So that part of the job is, is what I enjoy the most is interacting with others.

AB:

In your driving adventures, has there been one local spot that maybe sticks out as far as maybe a restaurant that you’ve really enjoyed or a fun little local spot that really sticks out?

CKT:

You know, what really stands out to me is the beautiful, lush rolling hills of our county. As I’m going around all of our rural communities, I find myself going, Oh my gosh, look at that. Oh my gosh, look at that. Look at that. And I’m pointing out the window to my family, to my husband and they’ll look and they’ll go, yes, it is beautiful. I said, I keep saying, I’m so blessed to live here. I can’t pick one in particular. It’s just I’m mesmerized all the time as I’m traveling through our county.

AB:

And you have that photographer’s eye, you know, we’ll just see the real beauty there and the landscapes. So that’s, that’s really wonderful to hear. You know as we wrap things up, Christine, I have heard that you had that or a recent event that membership drive, you mentioned earlier, maybe you can share with us for a moment, you know, how that event went. Is it continuing and any other events that are in the near future?

CKT:

Well, the membership drive is currently underway. We launched it on September 1st and it’s running for the whole month of September. So I don’t have all the results in yet, but so far we’ve picked up 13 new members. So that’s wonderful.

AB:

That is wonderful. So what are you doing with the membership drive? Can you tell us about it?

CKT:

Well, what we did was, is we took just a, we took our antiquated, I say antiquated well, because it was, we had a membership structure that had been in place for about 10 years and nothing had ever been done to change it. And so our pricing wasn’t reflective of, of current day. It was, it was our, we were offering more than the value we were charging for our membership. So we took a, we had lot of meetings with our budget committee and we had to really look at this and in spite of it, of COVID, we thought slight increases will still work. And we’re still able to offer these amazing benefits. And we decided to put everything into a tiered program. So we have silver, gold and platinum. And platinum, we call them platinum partners, anyone who contributes 5,000 or more. And we have a lot of industries, a corporate that can do that. So there are platinum partners if they wish to renew at that level. And then we have our gold and we have are silver and each, each tier goes up a little bit in value as far as what we’re offering for the members. So that is going over really, really well. People are excited when they see that. It’s not a stagnant figure. They can see all of the, they’re actually able to see what they get. Yes, we, we re-evaluated our brochures and decided, you know, what we need to actually put in there, the value of belonging to a chamber. And so we actually have a whole page on why join a chamber, and I just kind of listed it all out.

AB:

It’s more than just the ribbon cutting, right?

CKT:

Correct. You know, and the top three, for me, the connections, the credibility and the advocacy, those are the top three. And it’s hard to put a price tag on that. It really is because those connections are so important. And then the advocacy piece, just all of that together, just those top three means so much.

AB:

Setting you up for success, right?

CKT:

Correct.

AB:

Christine, we sincerely appreciate your time and your insight today. Thank you for sharing all the wonderful things that you are doing with the Hardeman County Chamber of Commerce.

CKT:

Thank you. And I’m really grateful to our amazing board members. They’ve really helped us kind of move forward in a positive way because that’s all we can do. We just have to move forward in a positive way. How ever that works. How ever we can make it positive. We have to find that positive spin and make it happen for our members.

AB:

That’s right. Just keep trucking along.

CKT:

Right. Right.

AB:

I love it. Thanks, Christine. All right, guys. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Main and Mulberry until next time. I’m Anna Bell.

 

Scroll to top
Hi there. Signup for our free weekly email that lists all the new stories we posted. Maybe Later