BRATTLEBORO—He came to the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce (BACC) between theater gigs, but for Greg Lesch, that association has become a calling.
And that service has resulted in Lesch’s being asked to serve as the permanent executive director after serving in an interim capacity since the resignation of Kate O’Connor in December.
“In the 18 years that Greg has been at the Chamber, he has demonstrated exceptional commitment and dedication, and his great work ethic, knowledge, and experience will be of great benefit to our members and our community,” says Gina Pattison, BACC board of directors’ president.
When he started in 2003, Lesch says he didn’t know anyone at the Chamber.
“But my dad had been on the board back in the day, when he was manager of JC Penney in Brattleboro,” said Lesch.
The job was initially described as seeking an IT person.
“There were a lot of people working, older folks, and not really into computers and the technology at that time, so I think [former Executive Director Betsy Gentile] maybe wanted someone more in tune with working with a computer and spreadsheets because at the time they were building a brand new website,” Lesch said.
He helped build that site, and then he moved on to serve as the Chamber’s membership and operations manager.
A 1980 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School, where he received multiple honors for theater and music, Lesch did undergraduate work at the University of Vermont in theater and then graduate work at the British American Drama Academy, at the time associated with the Yale School of Drama, at Oxford University in England.
“I wanted to be an actor, and yet I was drawn to Brattleboro as well and wanting a home and wanting to eat,” he says. “I tried to juggle both for quite a while, but I really wanted to have a home.”
“I still do theater — except for Covid, usually one show a year, primarily with the Actors Theater Playhouse [in West Chesterfield, N.H.],” Lesch says.
Lesch worked with Gentile, then her successor, Jerry Goldberg, who, he says “brought a host of experiences for me.”
Goldberg took the top position in 2005 after a career with House Beautiful magazine, CBS, and World Learning. Lesch said he learned a lot from Goldberg during the eight years of his leadership.
Goldberg says the feeling is mutual.
“I came to the Chamber directly from up the hill at World Learning, with scant knowledge of what Chambers do generally and what ours did specifically,” he says. “Believe me, I needed care and information. And guidance. How lucky I was that my constant Chamber companion from day one was Greg.”
“We started a conversation that continues to this day about all sorts of things, some totally Brattleboro- and Chamber-related, and some just about life and living,” he adds. “After all, I had 23 years on him, had lived and worked in New York City and Los Angeles, and been in PR and marketing for decades.”
“It didn’t take long to recognize what a natural talent Greg had for those critical disciplines,” Goldberg says. “He’ll steer the ship brilliantly.”
The new director says he was a bit shy speaking in front of people, “except when I was on stage and it was easy to disappear into the character.”
“It took me a little bit to get used to being more in the public arena. I was called upon more and more over these 18 years. I’m still more comfortable on stage, in some ways, but I enjoy people and really like hearing stories about their lives and about the businesses in Brattleboro and how they came from nothing and grew,” Lesch says.
“Everyone’s got a story to tell,” he observes.
Taking the reins
When Goldberg left, Kate O’Connor took the executive director’s job. Lesch had known her in high school, “but she had a whole life outside of Brattleboro,” he says, including working as a top policy and political advisor to former Gov. Howard Dean.
O’Connor “brought a lot of relationships with the Legislature, which is so important for chambers to have,” he says. “She really showed me how to work with local and state government to get things done and put programs and events together.”
When O’Connor moved on in December 2020, Lesch stepped in as interim executive director, not really thinking about taking the job permanently.
“Initially I didn’t really want it,” he says. “I didn’t apply for it. I was going to help with the process and interview people with the board and give my two cents.”
But then the board said, “We don’t think any of them is a better fit than you are,” Lesch says, noting that he was “very humbled by the whole thing.”
“I was so touched by that, and I thought, ‘Well, it feels like the natural sort of evolution.’”
For her part, O’Connor told The Commons that she considers Lesch “the perfect choice to continue the chamber’s mission.”
Helping keep downtowns ‘full and thriving’
Lesch notes the current wave of investment in real estate and business in town, which he sees as “a very positive thing.”
“Who’d have thought that during a pandemic there’d be that much activity? From Exit 1, it’s just a transformation,” he says, noting that in addition to investments by Paul Belogour throughout the area, the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery has just bought the River Garden.
The civic and community space in the heart of downtown Brattleboro, sold July 14, “really could have just sat empty and sad for a long time, if no one had stepped in, and they have,” Lesch says, describing what is now the River Garden Marketplace as “this really wonderful hub where locals and visitors can taste local craft beer and buy local crafts and just enjoy the view of the river.”
“We need to keep our main streets full and thriving, which is one of the main things that makes Brattleboro so unique; it’s a really eclectic mix of businesses,” Lesch says. “We want people to come here and make a day of it, and I think people are really pleased once they get here.”
During the stringencies of Covid, the Chamber continued to do some things but not its “full plate” of activities. Lesch says the Holly Days, Holly Nights promotion, now in its third decade, was maintained last year and will happen again this year.
The legislators’ forum — usually a full buffet breakfast and a lot of “mixing and mingling” — was held via Zoom, but it was “reasonably successful,” says Lesch.
“Nothing replaces the in-person experiences, and I’m hoping soon we’ll be able to do that again,” he says, noting that as numbers of those vaccinated increase and numbers of those who are ill improve, more activities will be planned.
The 5K Jingle Bell Jog Run, which starts and finishes at the Brooks House on Saturday, Dec. 4, is definitely on.
“It’s really a lot of fun,” Lesch says of the event where many folks attend dressed as elves and other holiday characters.
‘A chamber is only as rich as its membership’
Lesch is clearly proud that the Chamber, registered as a Vermont nonprofit organization and founded in 1906, is itself one of oldest entities in town.
Asked what he believes makes for a successful and vibrant Chamber, he is quick to answer.
“A chamber is only as rich as its membership,” he says.
A full one quarter of the Chamber’s 350 members are nonprofit organizations in the social services and arts, members that Lesch describes as “among our most loyal.”
“The eclectic mix of businesses that take part in it make a chamber vibrant,” he says.
Lesch says he tries to educate people about what the Chamber does.
“And that’s marketing,” he says. “We’re cheerleaders for the town and local businesses.”
The executive director says the BACC has a “great” relationship with the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and co-directs with that group the Community Marketing Initiative, which is funded by 10 percent of the 1-Percent Local Option rooms and meals tax.
Together, the two organizations and their respective members network, provide “a chamber of connection” via social and educational gatherings, host breakfast and legislators’ series and lunch with the governor, plus an information center for folks who are relocating or visiting.
For future programming and future growth of BACC, Lesch plans to build on what’s already in place.
“One thing I’d like to do is get those stories out into the community so people can hear how business X started and the travails they went through and the missteps and yet how they came to do what they’re doing,” he says.
“It’s hard to be in business, and these companies exist because people have stuck with it,” Lesch says. “I want people to know those stories.”