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Colleen Clark: Big or small, Chambers are about relationships
Colleen Clark may have just started her job as Executive Director of the Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce in June, but she certainly isn’t new to chamber leadership. Prior to Clark taking on her current role in the Lower Mainland, she spent 18 years managing the Sechelt and District Chamber of Commerce on the Sunshine Coast.
And although there is a stark contrast in the size of the two chambers, Clark says that there are two constants that stay the same, no matter the size: education and relationships.
As she strikes out on this new path, Clark recalled back to when she first started as the Sechelt Chamber manager. She was the youngest Chamber manager in B.C. at the time, and only on the job for a few weeks when she attended a BC Chamber AGM. She describes that as her Aha moment.
“I didn’t realize how in depth the chamber network was in providing the provincial and federal government with business’s perspective,” Clark said. “For me, that was a ‘wow’ moment – that’s where I realized, ‘Hey, this is what we really do and this is where I really help my membership learn.’ It gave me a whole different understanding of what we can do.”
Armed with a fresh perspective, Clark set to work in Sechelt. She is especially grateful for her role in the Sunshine Coast Chamber as one that afforded her the ability to give back to her community while employing her.
“There’s no other job in the community like a chamber manager,” Clark said. “We work together with all kinds of chamber partners: nonprofits, community events, government, business, people at large – and we attend every type of committee and local meeting.”
Clark said she learned the value in meeting large cross-sections of the community, or rolling up her sleeves and getting involved in community events.
One challenge she faced consistently was getting the local municipal government to understand the importance of local business. “There was always a big challenge of every three years having to reeducate the municipal councilors in government and staff on the benefits of having a strong business community,” Clark said.
But that education has paid off, as she recently saw the Sunshine Coast Regional District and local municipal government form a development partnership and pass a regional accommodation tax that will go into effect later this year.
“The Sechelt Chamber was instrumental in helping start Sunshine Coast Tourism 15 or 20 years ago, and getting all the players at the table and to the point where it got to be financially self-sufficient,” Clark said. “Now they have a sustainable funding to plan for the future to market themselves, and to compete against all the other marketplaces, like the Whistler resort area or the Greater Vancouver area or the Vancouver Island Tourism Association – now they actually have the budget they need to match dollars and market the area accordingly.”
Clark isn’t shy about why she wanted to be the Executive Director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce. “Langley has always been one of my dream jobs,” Clark said. “It’s one of the organizations in the network that I’ve always looked up to, looked to for advice and contacted for information on what they do for their events, because they always do things quite well.”
Then there’s the growth. “The population of Langley is projected to go up 120% in the next five years,” Clark said. “I see a huge movement towards development. We’ve got more industrial lands base than anybody else in the Lower Mainland available, a huge potential for growth in the agricultural area with a movement towards sustainability and sustainable food growth and all those other aspects, these are things that we’re all looking for moving forward. Making sure we can feed ourselves. Part of everything we try to do in business or nonprofit culture – any culture – is making sure that we’re sustainable. I see that Langley is one of those communities that has a really good balance of all of that, so for me that was a strong selling point.”
And Clark sees a lot of the same issues in Langley, despite the drastically increased size of membership. Just like in Sechelt, it all comes down to education and relationships.
“One of my challenges here will be educating the community that ‘development’ is not a bad word,” says Clark. “And making sure that everybody understands that there’s development and then there’s growth – you can let things grow haywire and off the charts, but that’s not the growth you want. Whereas if you’ve got the right partners at the table – the town, the city, the Chamber, your community business associations and the community at large, you can really structure how you want to see an area grow. I think Langley has that potential.”
That education goes for her, too. Clark said she’s consistently asking her members one simple question: What keeps you up at night?
“You’re the one that has to get up in the morning, and take that key and go down to your storefront or office and turn the key in the door. As you’re doing that, what goes through your mind? What do you think about that someone might be able to help you with, and how can the Chamber help?” Clark said.
And of course, running a Chamber of any size requires good relationships. “Whether you’re a tiny Chamber or a huge Chamber, making sure that you have partnerships in every aspect of the community, whether that be nonprofits, business, government, community services – you name it,” Clark said. “Making sure that the door for communication is open with everybody is critical.”