While Kathleen Harrington describes her love of public policy and community as “hokey,” she re-focused the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and is steering it toward new goals in 2019.
Sitting in her office on South Broadway under work notes written on a wall-sized white board, she talks about her journey at the chamber and where she hopes it goes next.
“I’m a little different breed of cat,” she said of her interest in policy over campaigning in the world of politics.
Even before the board dropped the “interim” from her title and made her the official leader of the chamber, Harrington took steps to involve the chamber in the community to represent all businesses. She spoke at city council meetings for businesses worried about the city’s plans to re-construct North Broadway.
“I think we can help people understand how to amplify their voices… We can bring people together, who were sitting off in their respective corners fretting and feeling powerless. We can bring them together and give them knowledge and a sense of power,” said Harrington. “I think that is an important role.”
As part of giving businesses, particularly small ones, a voice in Rochester, the chamber recently launched its “Shop Local First” campaign. That included going door-to-door to downtown businesses to talk about their needs.
That’s where the chamber is today, but Harrington had to work early on just to get people to listen to the chamber again.
Harrington had a long career in politics in Washington, D.C., working with the likes of Bob Dole and others.
Then after a stint working with Mayo Clinic’s political arm, she retired from politics to step into the role of interim president of the then-struggling Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.
The former chamber president, Rob Miller, had just resigned following his firing of a popular staffer and accusations of workplace discrimination. After a long history as being a major player in the direction of Rochester, the chamber’s reputation was stained and many members were leaving.
What did it take to start to re-build the trust of the community?
“A lot listening and, for many, apologizing. There was a lot of heartache… You have to lean into that with a lot of genuine humility and compassion for those who were hurt,” she said.
While earning back that lost trust is still an ongoing mission, though Harrington is also working the create a leaner, more nimble chamber that can better respond to the needs of local businesses and nonprofits. The chamber staff is much smaller than it has been in many years.
The organization is hosting more events to connect businesses with the local government and each other. Instead of tapping chamber members over and over for buying tickets, tables and sponsorships, Harrington is shifting the focus away from raising money.
“One of the big drivers for me is we need to be sustainable, financially. But what we don’t need to make a lot of money,” she said. “We need to run like a business, be efficient like a business, but we’re not about profit-making. We’re about serving.”
As part of that philosophy, chamber members will not see an increase in the cost of their dues in 2019.
Where the chamber will go in 2019 isn’t mapped out in detail, the direction will determine what people ask of the chamber.
“This is all baby steps. I always tell the staff that we’re not going to have any big ‘Ta-Dah’ moment. These are small things but, hopefully, they add up to greater trust,” said Harrington. “At the end of the day, we hope business owners may say, “The chamber served me well.”