Perhaps one of the most overused and least understood words in American commerce these days is catalyst, defined by the dictionary as a “person or event (or entity) that quickly causes significant change or action.” For more than a century, no organization in Lewiston-Auburn has been a greater agent for positive change and growth than has the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce, and the Chamber has achieved what is arguably its most dramatic impact in the most recent two decades.

In that time, membership has grown from 623 to more than 1,400, and the Chamber has become the largest local business membership and advocacy organization in Maine. The Chamber works on behalf of the more than 45,000 employees of the 1,400 members, representing every element of the local economy, every category of business, service agency, public and private sectors; those who choose to live here and those who are simply passing through. And for all those two score years, the Chamber has been led by its soon-to-be-retiring president, Chip Morrison.

“This is a good time for me to go,” Morrison said. “The Chamber is in a great place. The organization is strong, the communities we serve are experiencing a fabulous resurgence and new prosperity, and future prospects are unlimited.” Morrison added, “This transition is a terrific opportunity to reexamine how we do what we do, to redefine our role and our focus, to bring some fresh perspective, to give up anything that we should no longer be doing. We are stronger than ever and in a perfect position to support our members and our communities with even more impact in the coming years.

“The Chamber’s job,” Morrison said, “is to make connections. In all ways, all the time. We connect members to one another, to their customers and constituents, vendors, peers, and especially to the community. We help attract people to the community and get them oriented once they’re here. We help folks connect with the services and businesses that help make L-A such a wonderful place to live, work and play. Follow-up is vital, too. We can’t ever just assume that communication is complete just because the dialogue has begun. We’re constantly circling back to members to ask what else we can do to help them grow and prosper.”

The Chamber’s effectiveness as a catalyst is evident in the revitalized local economy, the number of recent business formations and expansions, job creations, the number and success of local festivals and arts venues and events, all year long.

The organization has been an effective bridge between the business community and the public sector, positioned as a resource to the legislative and Congressional delegations, interfacing with both k-12 and post-secondary education, and representing business’ interests with municipal officials throughout the region.

The Chamber has raised more than $560,000 for scholarships for local students, and has created a vital connection to the next generation of business and public leadership with the young professionals’ organization — YPLAA, Young Professionals of the Lewiston Auburn Area, now with more than 600 members of its own.

In addition to the countless thousands who enjoy the rich array of festivals in the area, nearly 10,000 people participate directly in the Chamber’s own events, including monthly breakfast meetings, Business After Hours events hosted at members’ own venues, the annual golf tournament, annual meeting, and the hugely successful B2B trade show with which the Chamber assists LAEGC.

The Chamber’s board of directors, led by Chair Cliff Greim of Harriman Associates, is engaged in a nationwide search to find a perfect successor to Morrison, and the expectation is that the new person will be in place by this summer.

“This was a great organization before I got here,” Morrison said, “and I didn’t break it!”

The Chamber remains committed to continued growth, continued change, and continued relevancy by creating still more opportunities for its members.

Even in the era of social media and electronic acquaintances, nothing is more productive than genuine personal connections. Participation in chamber events provides opportunities to widen the circle of professional relationships in ways which are truly meaningful.

Not long ago, Morrison made the observation, “When you volunteer with us, or serve on a committee – working directly with someone is the best way for them to get to know you and know what you can do; and for you to get to know them.” Try doing that on Facebook.

And the Chamber’s networking mechanism also enables businesses to identify potential vendors and service providers, identify new customers, and find ways to more fully engage with their own communities. The work of the Chamber is undertaken by its board of directors and by six standing committees – Business Advocacy, Regional Image, Workforce Development and Education, YPLAA, Membership Services and Development, and the Ambassador Committee – which together provide countless ways for members to become involved with the Chamber and its work, and especially to connect to other members and resources.

“We are fortunate to have a big board [of directors],” Morrison said. “One of the reasons it’s so big is that it reflects the huge diversity of our membership,” which includes over 100 non-profit organizations, more than a dozen municipalities and quasi public sector institutions, and traditional businesses in every imaginable field, including manufacturing, healthcare, finance, hospitality, retail, distribution – about 300 distinct categories delineated in the Chamber’s 2015 Resource Guide.

And the impact of the Chamber’s work is carefully measured and documented in the annual report, accessible from the Website, as well.

When asked how the Chamber could properly acknowledge his decades of service, Morrison suggested the creation of a legacy fund that would provide a small pool of opportunity funding available to the Chamber for discretionary investments in timely special projects, to continue the mission of service to members and the community. 

The goal is to generate up to $100,000 from 100 or more individual contributors, a reflection of the small business character of the community, the organization, and Morrison’s aspirations for Chamber leadership in the community for years to come. The Chamber is moving forward with as much energy as ever, and so is its Lewiston Auburn home.

On Friday, April 3, the Chamber board of directors selected Matt Leonard as the new president of the Chamber. Leonard’s selection was the culmination of an extensive, six-month national search which generated interest from across the country. Leonard will begin work on Monday, May 11.

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