It’s a good thing Heather New prefers to operate at breakneck speed.
To say that she has experienced a busy three months since taking over as Gadsden-Etowah Chamber president is a gross understatement.
Among the numerous items on her ‘to-do’ list on her desk is doing away with the perception that the chamber’s sole functions are to produce Gadsden’s annual RiverFest event and fatten the membership roll.
“RiverFest is a wonderful thing that really helps our economy, but that cannot be the primary focus of the Chamber,” she said. “We’ve got to be a year-round presence that helps grow the local economy on a continual basis. We don’t want to lose sight of that.”
Toward that end, New and the Chamber staff are rolling up their collective sleeves and getting in touch with current members to let them know of benefits that they might not be aware of.
“I want to create a freshness and newness [at the Chamber],” she said. “The intent of the Chamber is to grow the benefits for the members, not so much grow the membership. I do have a [membership] goal in my mind, of course, but the way we’re going reach that goal is to ask our current members what they want and need from us. We can have all the solutions in the world, but if they’re not what someone needs, they’re worthless.”
New, who took over at the Chamber on Nov. 15, previously worked as the executive director of the Etowah County chapter of the American Red Cross, a position that provided a solid foundation to tackle the many projects the Chamber has in store for 2012 and beyond.
New also oversaw Cherokee, Calhoun and Cleburne County Red Cross chapters.
“It’s kind of a unique situation in that with the Red Cross, I would visit area businesses and ask them to help me do my job,” she said. “Now I see this position as an opportunity to go to those same businesses and ask them how I can help them do their jobs.”
New said that the similarity that appealed to her the most about the Chamber position was allowing her to continue to have a “hands-on” approach in the community.
“I wanted to continue to be involved in the economic development in the area. There are so many opportunities right now for growth. We’ve got to focus internally and not let the trends outside the Etowah County market determine how we act locally.”
A 1993 West End High graduate, New pointed out that she has a vested interest in promoting a vital business community in Etowah County.
“I want to make sure that we focus on the unincorporated areas of the county,” she said. “I grew up in one of the county’s smallest communities in Moody’s Chapel, and a lot of people who live here haven’t even heard of Moody’s Chapel. I want to make sure that we’re reaching out as far as possible and make sure that we create a good, solid network and that businesses all across the county feel a kinship.”
New and her staff of Operations Director Leslie Stephens, Marketing and Communications Director Kerri Griffith and Membership Director Lisa Huie recently came up with a two-pronged marketing plan, called My Business is Better Because of my Chamber and We are Etowah County, and We Mean Business.
“We’ve invested in print, radio and television advertising for this plan,” said New. “We’re also setting up media days and asking our members to come in for photo shoots and sound shoots and video shoots. A member might fall into one category or [he/she] might fall into all three. We’ll combine four or five members into one short clip, and we hope it will be effective.”
Much of New’s first few weeks on the job at 1 Commerce Square was spent meeting with the Chambers most active members and asking them what they would liked to see implemented or changed. Out of those discussions came new programs such as Lunch and Learn and Pastries and Politics.
The latter event, which the dates were still being determined at press time, is a quarterly legislative forum in which Chamber members and their legislators discuss current issues in an informal setting.
New noted that Chamber members expressed an interest in group health care, a possibility on which she currently is working out the details. New stressed that the Chamber would strictly function as a liaison in such as arrangement.
“The Chamber would not benefit in any way,” she said. “We would not reap any financial gain or kickbacks.”
New said that the Chamber’s “Bridge to Business” program has been revamped since its inception last year with the Ambassador Club, a collection of Chamber members who patronize other local business owners and inform them on the benefits of membership. The ambassadors also connect with prospective members by attending Chamber ribbon cuttings and the Chamber’s monthly Business After Hours get-togethers.
“We still want our ambassadors to do all of that, but we’re going to make this group a very high-powered and high-networked focus group by limiting it to 20 members for this year,” said New.
According to New, the Ambassadors’ additional responsibilities will be to visit 100 of the Chamber’s 630 members.
“It’s as simple thanking that business owner for being a chamber member asking them if there is anything that the Chamber can do for them. We’re using this program as means to connect with our members face-to-face at their place of business. At the same time, that business owner has the opportunity to network. If it’s successful, we’ll continue to do it every year. If it’s not, we’ll look for something different to do.”
The Chamber next year hopes to implement a member-to-member benefit discount program, wherein each chamber member receives a card with discounts to other area businesses. Each member chooses what specific discount it will offer other members, with the Chamber then publicizing the discount to other members.
New explained that the Chamber’s quarterly membership forums consists of a public forum in which New and her staff listening to approximately 20 members discuss what they like about the Chamber and what they would like to see in the future.
“We basically find out what we’re doing well, what we’re not doing well and what we should be doing that we’re not doing,” said New. “Hopefully from that we’ll get subcommittees formed that will help us get those things accomplished.”
The Chamber’s Student Leadership Council consists of selected representatives from all 10 Etowah County high schools who meet monthly and are given a leadership-building program to work on.
“Sometimes it’s from one of our member businesses explaining what the job outlook might be in that field, or sometimes it’s team-building lectures and activities,” said New.
The Chamber is reviving its “Leadership Eto-wah” program following two years of inactivity.
New was a member of the program’s 2008 graduating class.
The program was, in New’s words, “probably the most single most beneficial thing to me” as a new executive at the Red Cross.
“It helped me get connected with my community and find out where all the available resources were. It’s a program I’m really passionate about and I want to see continued. The old program was wonderful, but I think we can enhance it even further.”
New asked representatives of Gadsden State, Jacksonville State-Gadsden Campus, University of Alabama-Gadsden Campus and Huntingdon College to participate. A representative from one of the four schools will act as the annual chairperson on a rotating basis. New said that the local United Way Chapter will be involved as well.
“We used to do evaluations at the end of each [graduating] class, now that we’re three or four years, out we’d like to ask the graduates about what components of the program benefited them the most in the long term and do a ‘where are you now’ type of thing. That way we can track the folks who commit to this [program] and find out the level of their success.”
Applications for the program will be accepted in October, with the course beginning in January 2013.
A Chamber program benefiting the area’s seniors is the Retiree Focus Group, which was created to attract retirees from out of Etowah County.
“We want to find out where we’re primarily pulling [retirees] from,” said New. “We want to know how they found [Etowah County], what are some of the amenities they find attractive and what amenities we might be lacking in. One of the things we would have thought about that they told us was that there are not a whole lot of rental houses available in the area. The important thing is to give them a product that they want, not something that we think they need.”
The Chamber also has partnered with the Uni-ted Way, Jacksonville State, Alabama Power, the City of Gadsden and the Gadsden/Etowah County Emergency Management Association for a Community and Regional Resiliency Institute Program (CARRI) grant.
Only eight such federal grants are given each year.
The Chamber’s Business After Hours has undergone some tweaking, as New and her staff wish to see more interaction among the participants.
“We want to do a Dirty Business party, which is similar to Dirty Santa, at the bigger functions,” said New. “We’d like to have some icebreaker games at the smaller ones like the Newlywed Game and Human Bingo. We still want people to meet, greet and eat, but we also want people to branch out and make new friends.”
New discussed several changes for the 2012 edition of Riverfest, including “hometown” games and contests such as dunking booth, celebrity look-a-like contest, sack races, horseshoe tournament and burger cook-off.
“We’re considering opening the gates earlier, so we’re looking for things that folks can do throughout the day and then the entertainment will be the focus that night,” she said.
In addition, the Chamber currently is seeking our non-profit partners to possibly sponsor events in the week leading up to RiverFest.
“We want to talk to businesses about having sidewalk sales, maybe on the Thursday before [the event], and we’ll promote those events. The YMCA does its “Rockin’ on the River” (5K run) the week before, and we’ve invited them to be a part of the promotion.
“We’d also love to see something happen on the river, like a Jet Ski demonstration or a canoe race. There’s just so many things we could do to give folks to a reason to take a week’s vacation instead of just a weekend for RiverFest, like creating a package of RiverFest tickets and a week-long stay in a hotel.”
As far as non-RiverFest community festivals are concerned, New said that the Chamber is at its members’ disposal for consultation and assistance.
“Using our knowledge gained from RiverFest, we can try to make things a little bit easier for them.”
New said that she and her staff are constantly searching for newer and more effective ways to communicate with Chamber members and make sure that they know what is included in their dues.
“One of my top priorities is making sure that our members are getting their money’s worth. More than a few of our members have told us that they were not sure just exactly what we do. That’s definitely something that going to change. It’s all about perception, and we as a Chamber have to get our message out as often as we can and as effective as we can.”