LEWISTON — Beckie Conrad’s heard the area has an image problem.
“I’m told we’re judged by our housing stock and our empty mills,” said Conrad, new president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
She flashed pictures on a screen behind her: Unattractive tenements, a looming brick complex.
“These houses are in Portland and that mill is not in Lewiston-Auburn, it’s in another Maine community and it’s empty,” said Conrad. “I don’t buy that we need to be judged by things other Maine communities are also facing. I want us to be judged by how we’re moving forward and what we’re doing about it.”
And at that, the audience in the Kora Shrine Center erupted.
Conrad, in her new seat just six weeks, spoke at the monthly chamber breakfast on Thursday in a speech that was part pep talk, part call to action, and interrupted several times for applause.
She said she’d spoken to about 60 members since late March, and to a one, they all need more employees.
“Everybody’s hiring,” she said, then echoed employers’ comments: “We need more work, therefore we need more workforce development. . . Maybe our schools could be doing more, maybe our image could be better.”
Expanding work programs in schools isn’t an easy fix, she said. According to statewide statistics, 23.5 percent of children in Androscoggin County live in poverty compared to 18.6 percent in all of Maine.
“I don’t think hungry kids learn as well as kids who aren’t hungry, and I think as a chamber this should bother us, and I think it should bother us a lot,” Conrad said. “Our school population is growing. These are your future employees, get to know them. And encourage all of our youth to aspire to their highest dream.”
She flashed another picture on the screen behind her: A 22-year-old woman with blue hair whose sweater sleeves covered tattoos. She was Conrad’s last hire before leaving the Maine College of Art and she was a talented woman in demand, fielding competing offers but wanting to stay in Maine.
“As employers, I want you to get more creative, this is my challenge,” Conrad said. “I’m encouraging you to think about what the world is doing around us and make sure blue hair is not a barrier to new employees.”
She said breakfast speakers would be tied-in each month with what the chamber’s doing and, going forward, breakfast attendees will hear each month from a different chamber committee about its work.
This fall, Conrad said, she’s also adding a second monthly After Hours mixer to the schedule to talk about the area’s big picture. She’d like it to take place on the upper floors of buildings around Lewiston-Auburn so people can look out and take it all in.
“I’d like you to join me to gather to envision our future, not what is coming soon, but what is over the horizon that will drive our future if we work together,” Conrad said.
“We need to refine our business model, we need to stay relevant, we need to invest in our workforce. Be a mentor. Create a finishing program. Hire someone who doesn’t look like you. Encourage every professional meeting and industry to gather in Lewiston-Auburn for their next meeting. Fill the hotels and restaurants, play on our golf courses, attend cultural events. One by one, we can change our image to be widely accepted as Maine’s place to build, lead and thrive,” she said.
Beckie Conrad is the president and CEO of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.