Beckie Conrad, the outgoing president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, at Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston on Monday. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Beckie Conrad joined the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce as president and CEO a little more than two years ago.

She took over after the chamber abruptly lost its president. Conrad leaves Friday for her next business venture and a search is underway for her successor.

Sun Journal: What initially inspired you to take the position?

Beckie Conrad: From years of experience working on local, state and regional education and economic development initiatives, I believed — and still do — that as our state’s second-largest economy, the LA Metro region should be a driver in Maine and that the business community should provide that leadership. I saw in the chamber presidency the opportunity to advocate for our business community’s success. My approach in the role was based on work I had done in the late 1990s and early 2000s as executive director of LA Excels, a 19-member, CEO-led 501(c)3 focused on inclusive grassroots identification of barriers to our community’s success and implementation of significant development projects for Lewiston-Auburn.

SJ: Over the past two years, what’s been a challenge?

BC: I’d been a member of the chamber since the early 1980s, first working for Bates College and then for both businesses that I owned in town. I even had Maine College of Art join for the last few years while I was there. And I had served on the chamber board in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In those years, the membership was smaller, heavily weighted with locally owned and operated businesses, many in the second and third generation of commitment to our community with both their time and financial resources. I found that much has changed in the intervening years with many business leaders living outside of L-A, an increased number of organizations competing for funding and new organizations delivering similar benefits as chamber membership.

As a chamber member — and even as a board member — it was not crystal clear how fundamental membership is to the chamber’s operations. The chamber must serve its membership before it can serve others. And membership organizations — the very culture that drives a chamber’s business model — are waning and need significant infusions of contemporary ideas to reach a younger demographic.

So as CEO, I needed to align all of this with my interest in immigration, poverty, the arts and educational aspirations. Ultimately, I realized that my strengths and professional goals pull me too far afield from the day-to-day focus the chamber needs to recruit and retain members, provide as much business to business networking opportunities for members as possible and encourage members to invest beyond their dues.

SJ: What are your vision and hopes for the area?

BC: More and more investment. If you think of the community as a business, we need both financial and social capital. We need to invest in our people and get everyone into the workforce who is seeking employment. We know we can grow our workforce if we stretch our minds and our hearts. And we need to support every opportunity to invest in education as the foundation on which everything else can be built. From early childhood to post doctorate, communities that value education are at a competitive advantage. My vision is for every local youth to see their future here and to receive a quality education to whatever level they need to find meaning in their life and in their career path. If we ensure that education promise as a hallmark of L-A, we also become a community where people will relocate to live and work.

SJ: A highlight or two of the last two years?

BC: I’ve looked at the two-plus years I’ve been CEO as three distinct projects. First, I focused on our members and added things like Kudos to promote their leadership, excellence and innovation. I also reinvigorated the Business Advocacy Committee and spent a great deal of time in Augusta helping members with legislative issues. By highlighting and working for our members, I hope that I have reinforced and made public the many wonderful and impressive attributes of our business community. I will continue to promote our region’s success and will never stop believing that our aspirations and destiny are in our own hands.

Second, I led the process to bring the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council into the chamber, a consolidation that reduced $600,000 in annual overhead to just over $100,000 while maintaining core services: a revolving loan pool, the Top Gun entrepreneurial development program, business development services and the capacity to award Foreign Trade Zone status.

And third, since the announcement of my plans to move on, Jennifer Hogan, our board chair, has led the board through a process to lay the groundwork to hire the next CEO. I’ve worked on this quite a bit, providing historical data, peer chamber trends and laying out multiple options for our future business model. I feel that I’ve contributed to the chamber’s healthy future even though I won’t be the CEO to implement all of the strategies.

SJ: You meet Lewiston-Auburn personified at a dinner party. What do you say to them? 

BC: Imagine the possibilities and believe in the potential.

SJ: And what’s next for you?

BC: I am an entrepreneur by nature. I am driven by new concepts and designing strategies. My career has been a series of developing programs, opening two business and restoring organizations. That is who I am and that is the work I want to do. I am energized by change and by risk, by not being sure what is around the corner.

So I have started a consulting firm to assist businesses and organizations with concepts, strategies and connections to launch new ideas, projects and initiatives. One of my first clients is Storm Warriors International, a terrific foundation based in Camden (and an LA Metro Chamber member) that gifts creative services to nonprofits doing humanitarian work. They originally worked internationally and now are focusing on growing in Maine and New England.

I’ll be helping with venture philanthropy and public relations. I have other proposals in the works on economic and community development, and for awhile I will be continuing to work pro bono for the chamber managing two grants: the NEA Our Town grant for arts and economic development and the Maine Arts Commission’s Creative Communities=Economic Development grant, focused on establishing a public art ordinance locally and installing two new pieces of public art between now and 2021.

Beckie Conrad, the outgoing president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, at Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston on Monday. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

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