Getting Down to Business: Transition Game
A Passing of the Torch at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of CommerceDoris Ransford was looking back on her 26 years as director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce when she paused for a short while at one of the seminal moments in her tenure — the chamber’s 100th anniversary in 1990.
This was a time of celebration, but also a chance to reflect on the many changes that had come to the community over that century, said Ransford during an interview in her last week on the job before stepping into retirement, adding that the pace of change has only accelerated since that milestone.
“I was looking over a special supplement we did as part of the 100th anniversary,” she recalled. “We honored all the companies that were over 100 years old, and there were a lot of them, mostly manufacturers. And, sadly, the majority of them aren’t here anymore.”
But while the complexion of the Holyoke business community has changed markedly over the past several years and the manufacturing base that put the city on the map has dwindled, there have been many positive developments as well, said Ransford, listing everything from new retail to a host of new small businesses to successful revitalization efforts downtown.
And the chamber has played a significant role in many of them.
Some of its most significant contributions, she said, have been in the broad realm of workforce development, a key issue in a community where business owners have long struggled to find employees with the requisite skill sets. The chamber has taken a leadership role in such initiatives as the creation of the one-stop career center CareerPoint, continuation of programs administered by the Mass. Career Development Institute after scandal there a decade ago, and a host of training and placement programs.
“Companies had job openings, but couldn’t find skilled workers,” she recalled, adding that the challenge persists today. “For many years, we were actually placing people into jobs from this office.”
Meanwhile, the chamber has been involved in other endeavors, ranging from the transformation of the old central fire station into a multi-modal transportation center and adult-education facility, to the advancement of plans for the return of rail service to the center’s downtown.
And while doing all this, the organization has been steadfast in its primary mission — providing effective service to its membership, said Ransford just a few days before she turned over the keys to her successor, Kathy Anderson, a veteran economic-development leader in the city, serving most recently as director of the Holyoke Office of Planning and Development.
Looking ahead, Anderson said she plans to continue building on the foundation created by Ransford and those who came before her, while also broadening the organization’s focus somewhat to include more work to assist and mentor fledgling entrepreneurs and small business owners.
“I’d really like to find ways to support small businesses that aren’t part of a chamber, and don’t have a lot of outside contact with others they can network with or learn from with regard to running their business effectively,” Anderson said. “We have to better understand the needs of the young entrepreneurs, and then help meet those needs.”
For this, the latest installment of its Getting Down to Business series, BusinessWest uses the leadership change at the chamber as an opportunity to look at where this venerable organization has been, and where it wants to go next.
History in the Making
The walls in many of the rooms of the Greater Holyoke Chamber office on High Street are covered with portraits of past board chairs. When asked if her likeness would eventually join them, Ransford laughed and said, “I seriously doubt it.”
But even if her picture doesn’t end up on the wall, there is no doubting Ransford’s impact on the chamber, Holyoke’s business community, and the city itself. Indeed, while many of the jokes at a testimonial staged at the Delaney House on May 29 concerned the length of Ransford’s tenure — Mayor Alex Morse noted that he wasn’t alive when she started, and state Sen. Mike Knapik recalled that he was still in college — there was also high praise for a long list of accomplishments.
And also recognition of a career in chamber work that spans more than 45 years and assignments in the region’s two largest cities.
Ransford started working for the Springfield Chamber of Commerce in the late 1960s, and eventually held a number of positions with that organization, eventually rising to senior vice president. She handled a number of responsibilities as well, from public relations to program development to running two affiliates, in Agawam and West Springfield.
When the director’s position came open in Holyoke in 1986, Ransford saw it as an opportunity to lead her own chamber, while also taking a leadership role in a city undergoing significant change as it continued the process of reinventing itself from its legacy as the country’s first planned industrial city.
During her lengthy tenure, she has presided over a number of initiatives, from support of Greater Holyoke Inc.’s efforts to revitalize downtown to the creation of a fall trade show that involved a partnership with the Chicopee Chamber. But perhaps the most noteworthy accomplishments came in the broad realm of workforce development.
Indeed, in addition to being one of five agencies that collaborated to create CareerPoint in the mid-’90s, the Holyoke Chamber was one of six chambers to receive grants for workforce efforts through a partnership involving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Assoc. of Manufacturers, the Ford Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“That enabled us to put someone on staff and work with companies that were needing employees,” she explained. “We were doing a lot of work with employers at that time, especially in manufacturing and health care.”
Ransford, who announced her retirement several months ago, has spent the past several weeks working on transition issues with Anderson, who told BusinessWest that she sought the chamber job because it would enable her to continue working on many of the issues that have occupied her time and energy for the past 13 years, but also narrow what had been a very broad focus to local businesses and how to assist them.
“I saw this as a great opportunity to continue to work with the business community and support it in a different way than I did before,” said Anderson, who worked in the mayor’s office in Holyoke for several years before moving on to the Office of Planning and Development, where she succeeded Jeffrey Hayden as director in 2006.
Looking ahead, Anderson said she wants the chamber to continue to take active roles in economic-development and workforce-development initiatives. These include everything from support programs for young entrepreneurs and small-business owners to efforts to introduce young people to possible career paths and jobs within the city through summer internships and other programs.
She noted that the city has indeed lost many older, larger employers over the past several decades, and that one of the many strategies for replacing those lost jobs is to encourage entrepreneurship while also providing support and educational opportunities for small businesses with the hope that some will remain in the city and achieve solid growth.
“It comes down to understanding the needs of this new generation of entrepreneurs,” she said, “and try to tailor workshops, breakfast meetings, or speakers to help them understand how to run their businesses more effectively so they can grow.
“Also, funding is always an issue for businesses, especially small, startup businesses,” she continued. “The first part to get started is easy, but the next round, the one they need to grow their business, is much harder to attain, so I would like to put together programs that would help them understand their options for getting funding.”
Another priority is to continue work Ransford started to get city businesses more involved in the school system in what can be a mutually beneficial partnership.
“I’d like to get kids into internships, summer-job-placement programs, shadowing, and more,” she said, “so they can see what types of jobs are available here in Holyoke, and to get them thinking, ‘I can do that,’ and have have a focus, or goal, of getting back to that company to work someday.”
Overall, Anderson sees a number of positive developments in Holyoke, from the High-performance Computing Center to infrastructure projects such as the Canal Walk, to the plans for restoring rail service. These, coupled with a changing population that includes more young professionals and members of the creative economy, have many thinking positively about the city’s future.
Returning to that 100th anniversary celebration and all that’s happened since, Ransford said that, while looking back can be a somewhat painful exercise, it doesn’t have to be.
“There’s always been a ray of hope in this city, and people have always worked hard to make a difference,” she told BusinessWest. “So while people look back and see all that’s been lost, a lot has been gained, too; I think this is quite a different city from when I first came here.”
Ransford is one of those who made a difference, and because of what she and others have been able to accomplish, Anderson and the chamber can indeed look forward with optimism.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]