LEWISTON — Three weeks into her new job, Beckie Conrad is ready to start talking about tourism, farm-to-table, downtown development, Bates College and boosting bottom lines.
She started as the new president of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce on March 27, taking over a nearly 1,200-member chamber that had been without a head since former President Matt Leonard abruptly quit in November over a controversial semi-automatic rifle raffle.
Conrad, 56, grew up in Massachusetts and came to Lewiston in 1978 as Bates College freshman. A day after graduation, she started what would turn out to be a long career at the school, first as director of housing.
In 1985, a year after getting married, she and husband Austin Conrad Jr. opened Austin’s Fine Wines and Foods in Auburn, becoming a staple downtown for 20 years.
Both experiences — working at the college and the shop — influenced her perspective.
“The businesses are here to be profitable and the more we can do that, the better off we all will be, and that’s a tough conversation to have sometimes,” Conrad said. “People feel sometimes that’s not the first reason you should be in business, but — I actually got this from my husband — ‘if you can’t keep payroll, then you can’t do much else.’ It’s important to me our membership feels the chamber is helping them make their business successful.”
That, in turn, can lift the community, she said.
Conrad hopes to ask lots of questions and be part of bringing important conversations about.
On tourism: With the help of a $10,000 Maine Office of Tourism grant and a matching $10,000 the chamber’s raising now, the restarted tourism committee is at work designing a new website geared to visitors.
Conrad said right now there’s lots taking stock: What do we have and what are we missing? She sees the effort paying off.
“What makes this attractive to a visitor are the same things making it attractive to people to live and work here,” Conrad said. “We definitely have the potential to be a year-round destination. Of course, all of our cultural institutions are active year-round, our beautiful architecture doesn’t go away ever. How do we develop (that)?”
The effort and new website don’t have a name yet. She’s hoping to have the site up by the end of the year.
On education: With Bates, Central Maine Community College, Maine College of Health Professions, the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College and Kaplan University, “we are a higher education hub and we don’t show that way to the casual observer,” Conrad said. “I want us to be heralded as a place where higher education is not only encouraged, but is thriving. There’s lots we can do with that and we don’t take advantage of it.”
At Maine College of Art, where Conrad spent the last 11 years, she said the school transformed a blighted part of downtown Portland by deciding to shift from a collection of scattered studio spaces to making its home instead in a former department store.
“I’m not suggesting Bates move downtown; what I’m suggesting is that that kind of catalyst can begin something else,” she said. “What that began in Portland is more than 50 percent of MECA graduates live in Maine, mostly in Portland. They’ve become a driver for that community.
“I ask this of many organizations, I don’t want to single out Bates, but we all come to the table with a product or a mission or a reason for being, but then there’s that multiplier effect around who we are and what we do that has impact and ramifications,” Conrad said. “That’s the conversation I’d like to have at places like Bates. How do you see yourself? How do you see the chamber supporting you to do what you do well?”
On the future: “The rural ring around us, to me, has huge potential for helping shape the conversation about the region, more so in some ways than the metro area,” Conrad said. “What do we want to look like in 50 years? I think the business community is going to drive that in many ways. What does it mean to keep an agricultural presence all around us? How can we develop that as an attribute? I think it means a lot when you start to read about places around the country that are losing that. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. What does this whole idea of farm-to-table mean for Lewiston-Auburn’s economic growth?”
Conrad’s planning two surveys this year to get a read on members’ wants; the chamber last did a member survey in 2014 and a more targeted business climate survey in 2011. Results from both will help steer future workshops, networking events and speakers.
This spring and this fall the chamber will host two forums around the proposed Lewiston-Auburn merger. She said it’s too early to say whether they’ll be taking a position.
“We feel the most appropriate next step is to offer the pro and the con the opportunity to be together and let our membership ask questions,” Conrad said. “We will hear in the those questions, perhaps, signals.”
Planning is underway for the annual Chip Morrison Chamber Scholarship Scramble, but there are a few other changes on the immediate horizon. Conrad said Uplift LA, the chamber’s subgroup for young members, had already decided to skip its Y-Not? Challenge this year and the Not Your Normal Formal is on hiatus.
“We’re going to come up with something fresh and new and exciting to replace it,” potentially this fall, Conrad said.
Beckie Conrad is the president and CEO of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.