Working in economic development and communications for U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, from 2005 through 2012, Natalie M. Blais quickly learned that economic development is most successful when it is driven from the ground up, not top down.
"Community buy-in is a must," says Blais, who later worked as district representative for U. S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, following Olver's retirement.
As the new executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Blais focused on spending her first two months listening to learn what is important to chamber members and communities.
In addition to meeting individually with each member of the board of directors, she planned to host "meet and greets" throughout the chamber's service area to discuss its future.
"I want honest feedback about what members want from their chamber. I also want to know what it would take for lapsed and non-members to become members," she said.
She officially began her work in early September, succeeding longtime executive director Ann Hamilton who retired earlier this year.
As executive director, Blais is responsible for the planning, development, implementation and evaluation of all programs and activities such as overseeing the chamber, general fundraising, establishing and building relationships with business and industry leaders and overseeing various events designed to raise funds or advance the image of the chamber in the community.
The chamber is also the regional tourism council for the region.
Reflecting on Hamilton's work, Blais says her predecessor cared deeply for the region and established strong relationships with local businesses, residents and government officials. "For decades, she fought to enhance the economic vitality of Franklin County," commented Blais, who most recently had served as chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
She says her own background in economic development and communications, coupled with her knowledge of government affairs, will build on those efforts and make her a valuable resource for chamber members.
The Franklin County Chamber has a successful monthly breakfast program that is sponsored by area businesses. "It is a wonderful opportunity to network and offers an opportunity to highlight our sponsors," she said, noting that she intends to continue this strong tradition and hopes to explore after-business-hours programming.
Franklin County has numerous economic strengths, she pointed out, including its creative economy, agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and small businesses. "Franklin County welcomes creativity and innovation," she noted.
In addition, the region is easily accessible via Interstate 91 and Route 2. The recent return of Amtrak service to Greenfield marked the return of passenger rail to the county for the first time in more than 25 years. "This presents an enormous economic opportunity for the region," Blais said, adding that events like the Green River Festival in July and CiderDays in November have garnered national and international attention. "I'm looking forward to keeping these events vibrant and exploring new opportunities," she said.
Franklin County, perhaps the most rural area in Massachusetts, does have its economic challenges, too.
Three quarters of its acreage is in forest and open land. "This rural character is a tremendous strength, but it also presents challenges. Building awareness about the accessibility of our region and what it has to offer will be a priority," Blais said.
Another challenge is the age of the area workforce. "With the majority of our workforce being older (45 to 64), I am interested in exploring strategies that will keep younger workers in this area and contributing to our economy," she added.
Incorporated in 1919, the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce is a private membership organization dedicated to strengthening and sustaining economic and civic vitality in the region.
As one of 13 regional tourism councils, the Franklin County Chamber has a close affiliation with the state Office of Travel and Tourism. Business counseling is provided, free-of-charge, in its offices, by the Small Business Development Center and the Service Corps of Retired Executives.
The Franklin County Chamber also operates the visitor center in Greenfield.
The chamber has three full-time and two part-time employees.
Born in Newport, Vermont, Blais earned a bachelor's degree from Dickinson College in 1999 and a master's from Emerson College in 2003. Her husband, Luke Bussard, is defensive coordinator the Amherst College football team. They have two children, Shane, 10, and Danny, 9, and live in Sunderland.
For more information about the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, visit the website, franklincc.org, or call 413-773-5463.