ST. ALBANS – Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager Lisamarie Charlesworth found time Thursday to decorate her office storefront in purple. She was joining other St Albans storefronts in displaying the color ahead of the American Cancer Society organized Paint the Town Purple event, which from June 1 through 8 will honor cancer survivors.
She had a roll of purple industrial cellophane wrap on hand for the task, and in between all her meetings, lunches, drop-ins and other responsibilities, had gotten as far as filling a bowl on the top of the Great Race trophy with a lovely jumble of the stuff.
“It’s a devil to work with, because it keeps ripping,” she said, settling in with an ice pack to ease her injured ankle, which she believed happened because she’s an avid runner and is always on her feet.
Charlesworth is a busy woman. And nobody would know she has a tender ankle if she didn’t say so. She’s almost weightless in her enthusiasm for her role as Chamber manager. It’s also apparent that she is uniquely qualified to helm the organization, having assumed charge after former manager Dave Souhtwick in 2018 elected to move on. That shift happened when the future of the chamber, like many others nationwide, was in question.
“When the Affordable Care Act happened, chambers lost their ability to broker health insurance,” Charlesworth explained. She was working as an assistant at the chamber by then, and when they had the very real conversation on whether to close the chamber for good, she was convinced she would lose her job. Instead, the chamber decided to scale back, and to make a go of it in the uncertain climate, and Charlesworth decided to step in as manager.
“I was very scared,” she said of the decision. “Full disclosure, I was petrified. I had to come to terms with the fact that I would have to do public speaking.”
Since taking over, Charlesworth and her colleague, Membership Development Associate Kent Scrivener, have recrafted the chamber to operate on an intimate level with its 300 members. It wasn’t certain, though, if the new direction would take the chamber off life support.
“But it worked!” said Charelsworth. She said she took a page from Southwick and former chamber director Jay Cummings, who would go out and sit down with chamber members to listen to their concerns.
“Our focus needs to be very personal,” she said. And while she gets involved with community events and greets people at the annual Great Race event, her unseen work lies in the one-one-one meetings with community partners, and with downtown merchants. She said she also finds herself giving advice when people call or drop in wondering how to build their business or simply where to go for a good dinner in the county. This function, she said, seems to be a hold over from the chamber’s history.
“The sense I get is that this office has been the sort of central location for everything,” she said. “People assume we know everything.”
As she talks, the jingle of the bell on her door announces a visitor, and Charelsworth leaps up to help a young woman looking for a regional map. Other times, her interactions can get odd, like the time a very agitated man came in asking for help finding a restaurant.
“He told me he’d just been released from prison and need to get to Burlington,” she explained. “I helped him get over to Martha’s Kitchen, and he really calmed down once he knew I would help him.”
Charlesworth said she sees nearly 500 drop-in visitors over the course of the summer, making the Chamber a touchstone for anyone looking to find their bearings in not only St. Albans, but the county.
“When someone says, ‘What does the chamber do for me,’ I think of those times,” said Charlesworth. “It’s that person filling up at the gas station, or coming in for a cup of coffee. It’s all those contacts that make it valuable.”
The chamber also creates a sense of community and reciprocity among members, hosting multiple events each year. The monthly mixers are a big draw for members, letting them gather and have food and drink, and share laughs.
“The mixers have been a lot of fun lately,” she said. “We have been having the most robust gatherings, and it’s really nice to see.”
Chamber members also carry cards that give them discounts at other members’ shops, and the fuel program gives them breaks on heating costs during the winter months.
Recently, Charlesworth has partnered with her colleagues to the north to mount an effort to create a better commerce connection between Franklin County and the Canadian towns just north of the border. Getting back to her unique qualifications, Charlesworth speaks French, having studied the language and art history in college, spending part of her college career away from her alma mater of Trinity College to study in France at the Academy at Besançon, in the eastern part of the country. Her language connection has helped to build bridges with her Canadian counterparts: she recently had lunch with chamber managers from provincial towns of Sutton, Dunham, and Abercorn. The goal is to expand the reach of both regions, and open the doors to both places.
“There’s just so much in those little towns,” she said.
Most recently, these efforts have created a regional map and business directory – in both English and French – that highlights the attractions in Franklin County and across the border. Charlesworth and her Canadian friends received a $5,000 grant to make the map a reality. Charlesworth is excited to promote the map, and the prospect of collaboration across the border to expand the reach of her chamber.
“Montreal is a great city, but there are so many great towns that are just like St. Albans just over the border,” said Charlesworth. “It just feels like a no brainer to get involved with Canada.”
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