Commerce: Taking the Hodag by the horns
There was a lot at stake when the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce needed to hire a new executive director last year. The chamber’s board of directors knew that for the organization to thrive, they had to find someone who could help continue the momentum the chamber had gained during former executive director Kim Swisher’s tenure. After Swisher took the helm in 2009, the beleaguered organization began to right itself, shedding a negative public image, adopting a more holistic approach to its plan of work by focusing on business and industry as well as tourism, and correcting financial problems. When she resigned to take another job, board members knew they needed an executive director who had a clear vision for the chamber and its place in the community, someone who could pick up where Swisher had left off and move the chamber forward from there.
That someone, as it turned out, was already familiar to many in the Northwoods. Former WJFW television reporter and anchor Lara Reed had left her post at Channel 12 back in 2008, eventually returning to her native Indiana, where she worked in marketing for an orthopedic firm. “I really loved the health care field,” Reed recalls, adding that she enjoyed knowing the products she was marketing-artificial knees-were making a positive difference in the lives of many people. But the time she spent in this area had left its mark on her. She enjoyed northern Wisconsin’s trails and lakes, and she maintained her relationships here after leaving the Northwoods. So when word reached her in Indiana that the Rhinelander chamber was seeking a new executive director, Reed decided to apply. Armed with great reserves of energy, creativity and enthusiasm, as well as a winning presentation of her vision for the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, she landed the job.
Now, nearly a year after her return to Rhinelander, Reed reflects on her goals for the chamber and the changes she has seen since she first stepped into her role as executive director. Her position requires her to utilize her considerable skills in marketing, communicating and organization, and that suits her just fine. “It’s the perfect combination of what I’ve liked about the things I’ve done,” she says of her current job.
The road, however, isn’t always smooth. When she took the executive director’s job last year, she didn’t inherit the same situation that Kim Swisher walked into, but she still copes with a number of challenges. One of those, she says, has been “stepping into something that has had so many different cooks in the kitchen,” thanks to the high turnover that had taken place at the chamber in previous years. What’s more, managing the expectations in the community about her responsibilities as the chamber’s executive director can present a whole new set of trials. And implementing the chamber board’s goals and policies with limited funds and a staff of, as Reed puts it, one and a-half people, requires a high degree of creative thinking.
But instead of letting those demands pull her in different directions, Reed remains sharply focused on the job for which she was hired. “Our job is to promote the community and promote the businesses in Rhinelander. It’s my job to bring people to Rhinelander so they can explore those businesses,” she says. “As with any nonprofit organization, we’re always struggling with financial needs and what the community expects on a limited budget. How do we offer the best possible value with limited resources?”
It’s a question without an easy answer. Membership dues, which the folks at the chamber don’t want to raise, are modest. For retail, industrial and service businesses, dues start at $200 a year, depending on a business’s number of employees. The chamber also relies on fundraising events and Rhinelander’s room tax for revenues. The generosity of volunteers at events is also important, as it helps offset the chamber’s expenses.
While many chambers of commerce share this particular problem, a lot of them don’t enjoy one particular advantage that Rhinelander has. Unlike many other northern Wisconsin towns, Rhinelander is in the enviable position of being not only a tourist destination, but also a regional hub of retail and industry. Not only does Rhinelander attract vacationers, but also shoppers, many of them from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Reed wants to make it clear to local industry that the chamber isn’t only focusing on tourism. “Ultimately, I want the chamber to be looked at as the organization that is at the top of the list working to improve, grow and strengthen the Rhinelander community as a whole,” she says. “I want our events to be packed, bringing in visitors from all over the state to enjoy the great community we have going. I want our members to truly see a value in their membership dollars. I want our business community to know that they can come to the chamber for advice, support and help in growing their business.
“When the chamber is mentioned,” she continues, “I want people to know we are one of the leading forces behind truly moving the Rhinelander community forward in all aspects of our economy.”
To that end, the chamber is continually expanding its services to members and the community in general, in ways both large and small. For example, a new offering from the chamber is its Lunch ‘n Learn program, recently created by Leadership Oneida County candidates as a community project. The chamber also uses social media to promote the community and member businesses, with a different business promoted each week on the chamber’s Facebook page. “We want to be able to show we appreciate their membership,” Reed says.
Another part of the effort to attract members is the chamber’s involvement in the community. Reed herself is involved with Partners in Education, Downtown Rhinelander Inc., Oneida County Economic Development, the City of Rhinelander Economic Development Committee and is also currently participating in Leadership Oneida County. She points to the Hodag Volunteer Connection, a database created by previous Leadership alumni that brings together organizations in need of volunteers and people who are looking for ways to make a difference in the community. “I want to see that grow,” Reed says. “I’d like to see the chamber promote that spirit of volunteerism.”
While recruiting and retaining members would seem to be a daunting task in a tough economy, the Rhinelander Chamber is pulling it off. There are about 900 businesses within the chamber’s service area, and just under 350 of those are chamber members. While there is room to grow, much progress has been made.
“Our dropped member list is much shorter than it has been in previous years,” Reed notes, adding that most of the drops are business owners who are retiring or leaving the area. “For the most part, everybody is staying on board.”
“Our financials look good, our membership looks good. She’s doing a fantastic job,” says Erin Skinner, who is president of the Chamber’s board of directors, of Reed’s performance. “She grabbed the Hodag by the horns and just ran with it.”
Reed herself is quick to share the credit. Since her arrival at the chamber, the organization has picked up more than 70 new members. “It’s a great number and something I’m really proud of,” she says, and she makes sure to point out the team effort behind the increase in membership. “That’s not just me. I think it speaks to the direction the chamber is going. I think that says that the community feels we’re doing something right.”
As it turns out, people outside the community think so, too. When Reed recently attended the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Green Bay, she met a man who was the chamber director in another community. He told her that when he talks to others in the tourism industry about communities in the Northwoods that have “gotten things right,” he uses Rhinelander as an example because this community has not only captured the tourism market that brings visitors to the area, but has also built up its business and industrial base. “Personally,” Reed says, “I feel that was such a great compliment and a shot in the arm for all the hard work people in the Rhinelander community have done.”
For more information, log on to rhinelanderchamber.com.