Getting Down to Business
Southern Berkshire Chamber Puts Community FirstIn a different time, Joy Lyon said, people would have called it a “love-in.”
The manager of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce’s Visitor Center was referring to 2011’s roster of celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Great Barrington. While the events may have lacked some of the more colorful connotations of those groovy times 45 years ago, the fact remains that, for a full year, scores came out in force to honor the businesses, townspeople, and civic pride of this picturesque Berkshire town.
One of the architects of this year-long series of events was Betsy Andrus, at that time owner of her own business in consulting, marketing, event planning … “it was this multifunctional operation,” she explained. “I would do weddings, property management, run construction projects — all across the board. Every day it was something new.”
As of Jan. 3, however, she assumed the role of the executive director of the SBCC, and it’s hard to imagine a more vibrant champion of both the town and the member region’s business community.
The SBCC serves Alford, Egremont, Great Barrington, Monterey, Mount Washington, New Marlborough, Otis, Sandisfield, and Sheffield. Each community offers a unique piece of the Berkshire experience, from outdoor activities, historic tourism, and unique retail — Sheffield has a widely known array of antiques dealers — to the hub of all comings and goings, the town of Great Barrington.
Andrus calls herself “just a local girl who is community-business-oriented.” But this local girl is a part of that very population of merchants, dating back generations.
As the incoming director of the SBCC, Andrus said her greatest hope is to keep the momentum from 2011’s spirited civic pride rolling into the years ahead. “Our drive was to bring the community back out of their houses and together again,” she said, “and that is our great challenge for the future.
“When I grew up here, this town was like a Norman Rockwell painting,” she continued. “Everyone knew their neighbors, everyone said ‘hi’ to one another. We had parades, huge town picnics. It all just stopped, and that was sad.”
Just a month into her tenure as the Chamber of Commerce director in this scenic corner of the Commonwealth, Andrus told the story of how she has been there to help Great Barrington, and the Southern Berkshires, continue to get down to business. “I want to help the business community recreate those events that people loved,” she said — “to make that a guaranteed part of our calendar, and part of our identity.”
Andrus said that her family has been active in the Great Barrington-area business community for more than 70 years, and that continues to this day. Starting with her great-grandfathers and grandfathers, she told how some of those businesses are still owned by relatives, from Harlan B. Foster’s on Bridge Street— a hardware store with a noteworthy collection of antique tools — to R.J. Aloisi Inc., an electrical contractor.
Her own foray into local commerce came from organizing the showrooms for one of her father’s firms, and after a hiatus to care for her ailing mother, she returned to the Berkshires to get back to business.
Andrus was always drawn to multitasking styles of employment, from the family businesses to her own, and a few years ago, an item in the local newspaper caught her eye. “The town of Great Barrington was interested in people to donate their time for the next few years to create and carry out ‘something,’ whatever we chose, for the 250th anniversary of the town. I was very excited about that, submitted a paper on why I would be an OK person to do that, and my proposal was accepted.”
Immediately, there was a need for officers to take charge of the various and sundry roles necessary to execute the events, and Andrus, the born leader, suggested a local businessperson who had a large secretarial pool, perfect for the administrative tasks at hand.
“I’m one of those cheerleading types,” she explained, “and also a bit of a jokester, so in the middle of a meeting when no one was volunteering, I said, ‘well, I think so-and-so should do it.’ So, through that smart-alecky remark, that person said, ‘OK, I’ll do it, if you do it with me.’ And it turned out to be a fabulous year.”
Lyon and Andrus together remembered many of the 28 events that took place in their hometown, from historic slide shows, where they couldn’t shoehorn another guest into the auditorium, to picnics, parades, a gravity car race, a family snow day, and the popular holiday stroll.
“It was almost over the top,” Lyon said. “Each day was like a better party than the last. A lot of people in Great Barrington got to experience the town in such a way that we hadn’t for many, many years.”
It was during the time organizing the holiday stroll that Andrus learned of the eminent departure of the chamber’s then-executive director. “I had the conversation with the president of the board,” she said, “talking about how it was sad to see her go, and I asked about the job description — trying to figure out, maybe, why she would want to leave, why was it not working for her, because we all liked her.
“I left that conversation, and the president called me back and asked if I’d be willing to come in for an interview,” she continued. “I hadn’t written a résumé in 30 years! I said I’d think about it, but they called me back two hours later and said, ‘no, we really want you to come in for an interview.’ I said, ‘oh boy!’”
“When I was younger, people would say that Great Barrington was like Mayberry,” Andrus said of the old-fashioned feel to her hometown.
While the smaller towns each have their own distinct pockets of commerce, the fact remains that most, if not all, roads wend into Great Barrington. Andrus said that is a strength of those more rural locations.
“We are a quaint town,” she explained, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t vibrancy here. Pittsfield is just up the road, and that does have all the offerings of a larger city. But we have here in downtown a satellite branch of Berkshire Community College, we have businesses that have been anchors of Main Street for over 50 years, and are still important employers in the town, not to mention supporters of civic events.” She mentioned Tom’s Toys, Wheeler & Taylor Realty Co., her family’s hardware store, and the Berkshire Co-op Market on Bridge Street, among many others.
The co-op has been instrumental in supporting small, local brands and giving them a platform for expanded distribution, said Andrus, noting that, in years past, brands like Berkshire Brewing, SoCo Creamery’s ice cream, Route 7 BBQ Sauce, and many others have been given their first boost by the market.
As the “local girl,” Andrus said that neighborly support is still a part of the fabric of her small town, and as the chamber director, she added that such community actions are a source of strength for businesses in the Southern Berkshire region. “Somewhere along the way, the notion that we are a community has been lost,” she said. “And I want the chamber to help change that.”
To encourage business owners to become part of the SBCC, Andrus said she is willing to adopt creative methods for them to finance initial entry into the organization.
“If finances are an issue, you don’t have to pay dues the first year,” she explained, “but can instead donate your space, food, or your time. You can still have a place on our Web site, in our newsletter, and be part of Joy’s vibrant Facebook presence for the chamber.”
The next few years will see two large-scale construction projects tearing up downtown Great Barrington, and Andrus said that some business owners are concerned about the potential disruption. But the chamber expects to prepare up-to-the-minute responses for parking, closures, and other relevant information on navigating their big dig. The SBCC will speak with one organized voice for the business community, she explained.
Reflecting back on the successful birthday of Great Barrington, and the momentum for bringing her to where she was that day, Andrus said, “even at some of the very smallest things we did, people loved it. They would say, ‘why haven’t we done this in 20 years? Is someone going to take over and do it again?’”
Looking out the window onto Main Street, she nodded her head and said, “yes.”