The Magnolia Chamber of Commerce has a new president, Heather Ussery, and big changes are on the way, including a new publicist and closing the chamber’s office.
Ussery has been with the Magnolia chamber since 2005 and has been on the board for the last four years. She’s also been with Umpqua Bank (2236 32nd Ave. W.) for the last four years.
There wasn’t much competition for the president position, Ussery said: “We’re kind of doing good just to get enough people to serve on the board right now.”
Once the board members were selected, the group divvied out positions, and Ussery agreed to take the lead when others offered to help her out.
“It’s not like I didn’t want to be president,” she said. “But part of the motivation for it is, I feel like, the chamber, we’re kind of stuck in the past.”
Local artist and chamber board member Scott Ward said Ussery brings experience and is good at managing people and processes.
“From my point of view, that’s why she’ll be a great president,” he said.
The transition between former chamber president Dan Penhollow and Ussery was really smooth, Ward said, explaining Ussery “stepped right in and took the bull by the horns.
“I feel like we’re at an upswing at this point,” Ward said. “Not something I felt last year or the year before. It feels like some really great things could happen here, and we could make that happen.”
Last year, the chamber’s most recent executive director, Jovanna Nemes, left the position after only six months. Penhollow said in a previous story that the chamber hadn’t been clear about Nemes’ duties, and she “was really thrown into the fire, so to speak.”
Then, as Nemes was leaving, chamber members disagreed about when to hold the holiday events. This created two events — only one of which was chamber-sponsored — and major confusion among both businesses and community members.
Out of the past
The chamber needs to go in a new direction, Ward said: It needs to encourage new and existing businesses to be part of the group and for the group to “prosper and grow.”
“To be honest, right now, the chamber is a little stagnant, and just like everything else, there’s an ebb and flow,” Ward said. “Right now, we’re at the place where we need to sink or swim.”
Ussery has a vision to bring the chamber out of the past with things like social media, a stronger website and increased membership, which has “dwindled down to this teeny, tiny group of members,” she said. Currently, the chamber has about 100 members; in a really good year, that number has reached 140. Ussery hopes to get membership up to 200 over her two-year term as president.
“I think with us, so many times people look at Magnolia as just the village here and they forget about business on Thorndyke [Avenue], Government Way [and] in Interbay,” she said, adding there’s also a strong collective of at-home business owners.
Ward, who works out of his home, hopes he can help inspire other home-based businesses to be part of the chamber. The chamber needs to know from businesses what kind of support they’d like, he said. He’s hoping the new faces who have joined the group will bring new creativity and enthusiasm.
To get things to where they want them to be, Ussery and the board have some big plans. The biggest are closing the chamber office in the village and replacing the executive director position with a public relations person.
Ussery wasn’t initially on board with closing the office (3213 W. Wheeler St., No. 518), but she realized no one really uses it and it’s an additional expense. The money that would be paid to the executive director position will now go to Jennifer Sandmeyer and her company, Sandmeyer Marketing, which handles the advertising for Next Door Media, owner of the Magnolia Voice blog.
Sandmeyer’s main focus is gaining new members, and part of that means looking at the benefits offered to them. Ussery hopes they can provide more immediate, tangible benefits to businesses that are part of the chamber. This may include discounted advertising or being featured on the Magnolia Voice blog, Sandmeyer said.
She will also handle the chamber’s social networks, website, emails and phone and serve as a face for the chamber.
“We want to grow the businesses here and publicize them and make them successful,” Sandmeyer said. “When they succeed, it benefits the neighborhood, [and] people in this neighborhood want to do business with the mom-and-pops.”
Sandmeyer plans to reach out to businesses that haven’t been approached before and entice them to join. She has her own goals for when membership has grown, she said, like possibly replicating the Summerfest event at another time of year or bringing in food trucks.
“A lot of the members have great ideas,” she said.
Last year, there was some disagreement among the village businesses about the timing of holiday events. This year, Ussery hopes to negate any disagreement and confusion by having a wine-walk event before Thanksgiving and Winterfest after; the chamber will sponsor both events.
Things have calmed down since last year’s struggles, Ward said.
“It felt like there was a lot of searching for a clear vision; in that was discomfort and not seeing eye-to-eye,” he said about last year. “I personally feel much better about where we are today and being able to work together.”
In the next six months, Ussery’s main goals are increasing membership and improving the chamber’s general reputation.
The board has had the same core group of volunteers, and Ussery would love to see new people getting involved. If membership grows, the chamber will be able to do bigger things, like possibly opening a storefront office that is more visible to the community, she said.
“I don’t want us to get stuck in what’s worked maybe 30, 40 years ago,” Ussery said. “I don’t want to get stuck in the past so we’re holding ourselves back from the future.”
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