The Power of Presence
Greater Westfield Chamber Is in the Business of Making ConnectionsKate Phelon is passionate about what she calls the ‘power of connection.’
“Technology has a role in business, but face-to-face meetings not only allow people to promote themselves, but also find out what the other person needs and how they can help each other,” said the executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce.
Her belief, reinforced by events that facilitate interactions, are at the heart of the Westfield chamber’s success. The organization hosts 10 ‘mayor’s coffee hours’ each year at different venues; the gatherings give business owners the opportunity to voice opinions and ask questions of the city’s chief executive on issues that are important to them. The chamber also works closely with city officials to ensure that specific needs of business owners are heard and recognized.
“The chamber, the city, the Westfield Business Improvement District (WBID) and Westfield on Weekends are a cohesive group,” Phelon said. “We are all supportive of each other because we are working collectively to promote and develop our community.”
Complementing this is her personal mission to link new members with established business owners and help companies grow their customer bases.
The chamber serves Blandford, Chester, Granville, Huntington, Montgomery, Russell, Southwick, Tolland, Westfield, and Woronoco, and the majority of its members are small businesses with four employees or fewer.
Stevens 470 Marketing and Creative is included in that demographic. “The chamber has helped us get to know other businesses,” said Principal and Creative Director Tina Stevens, who serves on the chamber’s board of directors. “The businesses here are related, and there is a real sense of community. It’s important for us to know and become connected with each other because it makes it easier to decide who you want to work with, as well as the nonprofit organization that is the best fit for your volunteer efforts. Westfield may be a city, but it has a small-town feel.”
Phelon said there is a growing entrepreneurial spirit within the community that has led to a plethora of new business openings in Westfield over the past year.
“Things are happening here, and it’s an exciting time for the city. Entrepreneurship is a risk, but these businesses are the backbone of our community.”
The chamber takes a multi-pronged approach to supporting this backbone, and a number of new initiatives for the upcoming year are in the planning stages.
“We’re implementing quarterly workshops aimed at helping small businesses,” Phelon told BusinessWest, noting that, thus far, seminars on social media, online advertising, succession planning, and retirement benefits are in the works and will be offered free of charge to members. “These are all tools that businesses need to stay vibrant and young and thrive.”
She said the workshops were sparked by members who approached her, wanting to share their knowledge and expertise with others. She hopes to increase the number of programs as time goes on and include topics members will find beneficial.
“Our buzzwords this year are information, education, and advocacy,” she said. “We will promote this heavily in 2013 to provide additional value to members. What makes us different is that it doesn’t matter if you are a one-person show or the largest company in Westfield; we recognize the value of every business.”
One way this is accomplished is via a legislative committee that works to resolve local issues. “And we are the voice of our members when it comes to influencing the City Council and setting commercial and industrial tax rates,” Phelon noted.
She plans to invite all members to a public hearing in November on that issue, and believes a strong presence will make a difference. “Westfield is in transition, and we are hoping to get the tax rate lowered this year.”
Phelon was hired as executive director 20 months ago, and said she is thrilled to work in the city she has lived in for 35 years.
“I was a member of the chamber when I had my own business, and now I’m trying to convince businesses to join,” she said, adding that she has long been active in the city, and was the first female president of the Rotary Club of Westfield.
Her diverse background gives her insight into the benefits of membership as well as the need to promote the city and surrounding area.
“Economic development is part of our mission,” she explained. “We help to develop and foster a prosperous business environment and take it to another level by participating in all ribbon cuttings that we know of, as well as talking to our business owners.”
New members are given a package of benefits that include free admission to a chamber breakfast and WestNet gathering (an after-5 event), as well as a table top at a signature event to help them gain visibility. This is important since Phelon’s goal is get as many business owners as possible to meet each other in person.
“You never know who can help your company,” she explained. To that end, she is implementing an ambassador program that will match a new member with an existing one who will act as mentor for a year.
Business advice and encouragement coupled with networking are critical to the success of small ventures, she continued, adding that the chamber wants the city to become a destination, and improvements to the downtown infrastructure will help that happen.
She points to ongoing work on Elm Street in the heart of downtown and planned improvements in the so-called Gaslight District, with work slated to begin next spring.
“The city development officer reached out us to us, and several chamber representatives sat down with people from HDR Engineering Inc., who are in charge of the market and transportation analysis,” she said of the Elm Street initiative, explaining that city officials have been seeking input on what members felt would make the area successful. Ideas included new eateries, specialty retail shops, and professional offices, along with market-rate housing.
“We are excited about improving the downtown area,” Phelon noted, “because, when you make improvements to it, you bring foot traffic to existing and new businesses.”
Recently there have been some important additions to the business landscape, including Armbrook Village (a senior-living complex) and a major addition at the Gulfstream facility at Barnes Municipal Airport. In addition, Walmart is expanding and will soon become a superstore.
The first phase of the city’s rail trail has been completed, and Phelon says the economic impact it will hold in the future is considerable, because it will be of one of four elevated rail trails in the country with a large number of access points to businesses.
She said she receives many calls from people inquiring about retail space downtown, and directs them to the WBID.
She said the chamber acts as a facilitator, making connections between entrepreneurs and officials in City Hall, Westfield Gas & Electric, and other entities to help pave the way for new business ventures and expansions. Such was the case with the Westfield School of Music, which recently opened its doors.
The chamber recently finished its strategic plan for the coming year, which includes a plan to host more events in the small towns it serves.
“In the past, most events were held in Westfield or Southwick,” Phelon said. “There hasn’t been enough outreach for members in outlying towns, and it will be interesting for people to learn about the businesses there. It’s exciting to reach out to them, and we want to have a greater presence in the hilltowns so they can make connections.”
The WestNet events have also been transformed, and participation has increased dramatically due to venues that are fun and interesting. New members are introduced and get to pitch their products or services, and those who work on the event are recognized.
A recent gathering was staged at Maple Brook Alpaca Farm, where participants watched a shearing demonstration, while another took place in Pioneer Valley Railroad’s dining car, and a third was held at YMCA’s Camp Shepard beneath a pavilion near its new swimming pool.
“Some business owners would never get the opportunity to see these places; our WestNets are fun, and you can feel the synergy,” Phelon said, adding that one business owner introduced people to her company by singing a song. “We are very creative and want to provide events that are different.”
In August, Phelon attended the annual meeting of American Chamber of Commerce Executives in Louisville, Ky., where the theme was “Limitless Possibilities” and how they can be fostered.
For her, the answer was clear and came down to the recognition that each business has a personality and mission important to the Westfield region.
“Whether you are a sole proprietor or a large employer such as Westfield State University or Noble Hospital, our chamber treats you the same way,” she told BusinessWest. “We make a real effort to make people feel comfortable. My philosophy is that the chamber should help members thrive, so I get excited when people meet and connect. Not only is it part of our mission, the bigger picture is that it can help businesses grow.”
Which happens when they are educated, informed, and supported by their peers, Phelon said. “It’s a domino effect, and we will continue to foster economic development through personal connections.”