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Gresham chamber on firm footing for future

Alison Hart can attest to the fact that college internships frequently predict the future.

More than 20 years ago, Hart was studying English and French at the University of San Francisco. She landed an internship with the French-American Chamber of Commerce as a student and after receiving her bachelor’s degree went on to spend six years in membership services with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. During her tenure, she oversaw retention of the bureau’s 2,000 member organizations and produced 46 annual events that drew from 15 to 1,200 attendees.

It turned out to be a fortuitous experience, since Hart is CEO of the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. She took the reins in January 2011, when former executive director Carol Nielsen-Hood retired after 13 years with the organization.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Alison Hart is the chief executive officer of the Gresham Chamber of Commerce.Hart, 44, might no longer keep tabs on a membership the size of a small city, but she does have her finger on the pulse of the business needs and climate in Oregon’s fourth largest city. Her responsibility, she said, is to act as a navigator for the chamber’s 500 members, helping them network, succeed and grow. Hart also acts as a resource on key issues by educating and informing business owners and community members in how those issues impact the region’s livability.

The Outlook sat down with Hart recently to see how the chamber has progressed over the past two years and her vision for the future.

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What was your biggest challenge after taking the helm of the chamber?

“I think the first was being an ‘outsider.’ I wasn’t from Gresham, so that was both a blessing and a challenge.

“The blessing was I was able to look at things objectively because I didn’t have any history here. I had a fresh set of eyes. But the downside was I didn’t have those established relationships with people. I had to work a little harder to create them. And credibility. I had to establish trust the with chamber members, the board, community leaders and businesses, to enroll them in the directions of the chamber.”

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The chamber has several active committees, which have energized the business climate in creative ways. What would you consider the biggest change the chamber has made in the past two years?

“We redefined our mission statement to read, ‘Bringing together and serving the business community.’ There are four areas where we want to lead, and we call them our vision. They are: advancing a vibrant and prosperous local economy; representing business to government; promoting the community; and connecting business and people.

“Everything we do has to align with the vision statement to advance both the organization and the region. We’re thinking more regionally so we can include Fairview, Troutdale and Wood Village. It behooves this area to work together because when we combine collaboratively, we have a bigger voice. That’s important.

“We also redefined our government affairs policies to be a more proactive liaison between business and government officials. For example, with the redistricting issue last year, we worked to educate the community and businesses so they could understand the issue. Healthy communities need businesses, but owners are busy people. They don’t have a lot of time to be in front of the issues, even though those issues could impact their business. The purpose of a chamber is to be the voice for business — to promote a prosperous local economy and growth. If it’s a healthy environment, business will grow.”

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How does the chamber successfully serve a diverse membership of 500 businesses?

“Our members range from sole proprietor to a company like Boeing, so we’ve really diversified our programs to meet our members’ needs. For example, the governor spoke at our Economic Summit last year. Most of the large businesses attend that because it gives them a bigger picture from the 30,000-foot level for regional development. But that bigger picture may not be easy to grasp for a small business. So we utilize our AM meeting as a great place for smaller businesses, with maybe four employees or those that are service oriented, to get their name out there and network.”

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You mentioned collaborating with neighboring chambers of commerce to promote the region. Are there any efforts to achieve that goal currently in the works?

“We asked ourselves, ‘How do we capitalize on the assets we have?’ One of my new and exciting projects is an initiative to create economic development through bicycle tourism. If we have all the hiking trails and bike paths here connected throughout the region, it’s going to affect everyone by bringing people in who will support local businesses and encourage business growth. We want to bring all the players together to put this area on the map as a bicycle destination, by capitalizing on the assets that are already in place.”

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Would you say the chamber is more than just a stop for tourist information?

“We are a resource. I like to think we’re the spoke in the wheel — we connect people. We are meant to be the hub to help people access businesses, community groups, nonprofits, government leaders. We touch all of those to help our region grow and prosper.”



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