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Kate O’Connor takes reins at Chamber

BRATTLEBORO—Kate O’Connor has seen her share of leadership positions, from her current role on the Brattleboro Selectboard to years spent under the Statehouse dome during the Dean and Shumlin administrations.

In her new role as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, O’Connor plans to unite the area’s diverse entrepreneurs and businesses for a better, stronger region.

“It seemed an exciting job at a challenging time,” said O’Connor, sitting in the conference room of the BACC.

The economic and business challenges facing the area cannot be solved by one organization, she said, adding that she believes in strength of numbers. Only working together can the area rise above its challenges, she said.

O’Connor replaces outgoing Executive Director Jerry Goldberg in a couple weeks. Until then, she’ll be shadowing him on the job.

“I wouldn’t even try to be Jerry,” she said of her famous — or infamous — predecessor. “I can only be me.”

“We are here to help the community,” said O’Connor of the Chamber. The more people get involved the stronger the organization will become.

The Chamber wants to assist people and help entrepreneurs grow small businesses, she said.

In her new role, O’Connor says she intends to spend a lot of time listening to business owners and Chamber members. An important question to answer: What’s important now?

Organizations such as BACC learn more when they hear what they’re doing wrong, O’Connor adds.

A challenge ahead: developing easy ways for people to participate. Different approaches may help different people, she said.

“Everybody is stretched too thin,” said O’Connor.

Brattleboro is a unique community, said O’Connor of her hometown. Its citizens take an interest in the community and issues and, even when people disagree, they manage to work out issues as a team, she said.

The area’s businesses are also unique from small artisans to large corporations to the tourism industry, she added.

Expanding Chamber membership is one of O’Connor’s priorities.

BACC membership is open to all regardless of business size, open to both for- and non-for-profit entities, and community members who don’t own a business.

The diversity of businesses in the area excites O’Connor.

Most people consider a business as a building with workers inside, said O’Connor. The region, however, is blessed with a variety of entrepreneurs running small business like retail owners, artists, and farmers, to larger manufacturers such as G.S. Precision.

O’Connor says she feels the area stands at a critical juncture in the tight economic climate, high taxes, and an aging population. Building “strength in numbers” through building involvement will push the region forward.

One business alone can’t solve the economic challenges in the area, she said.

She also anticipates collaborating with other organizations like the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and Building a Better Brattleboro on economic development issues. Ensuring chamber members have a voice at the table tops her list.

Years in the Statehouse helped O’Connor understand how systems work, how to build connections in Montpelier, and learn how to hear citizens’ concerns. She expects to bring those same skills to the BACC.

The Chamber must listen to its members, much like a legislator must listen to constituents, she said.

O’Connor described her career as community-oriented. She helped steer Gov. Howard Dean’s presidential bid in 2004. In 2012 she ran for a seat in the state Legislature, losing to Tristan Toleno.

O’Connor also serves as vice-chair of the Brattleboro Selectboard. When asked if serving as the Chamber’s executive director posed a conflict of interest, O’Connor said no. “I don’t see that I have any more of a conflict than anyone else on the board,” she said.

She added that if an issue comes before the board that suggests a conflict of interest, she would recuse herself.

“I think I’ve proven that with Building a Better Brattleboro,” she said.

O’Connor served until recently as vice-president of the BaBB board of directors. That organization is also focusing on growing membership and community involvement. As part of the BACC leadership, she will be an ex-officio BaBB member, but the role will be completely different, she said.

O’Connor says Brattleboro has a “great brand.” She and BACC hope to create a peer mentorship program for entrepreneurs.

If all the business owners sat together, they’d probably find they have more in common than not, she said. Mentoring each other could create more successes and grow the economy.

Enticing bigger businesses to the area is good, said O’Connor. But people already live here and want to stay here. The BACC should also support their growth.

O’Connor points to the anticipated 2014 closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

Smart, skilled, talented people work at the plant, she said. Some will leave the area to work at other nuclear plants. Others, however, may want to stay. Can this area find good-paying jobs to match former Vermont Yankee employees’ high tech skills or support them to start their own businesses, she wondered rhetorically.

O’Connor said some of the challenges for the area are high taxes and the aging population with fewer younger workers to fill the workforce.

A frustration with economic development, said O’Connor, is that it doesn’t happen overnight. Yet people say to O’Connor they need help “now, not three years from now.”

“I like a challenge,” O’Connor said.

The Chamber is working on an app it hopes to launch in January to take the organization’s social network “to the next level,” said O’Connor.

Overall, BACC looks to expand what it offers. “What do you want to see? What is helpful to you?” are the questions O’Connor will ask BACC members and local businesses.

BACC is “looking at things in a bigger way,” said O’Connor.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #231 (Wednesday, November 27, 2013). This story appeared on page A1.

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