Dorothy Gillian presided over her last Forest Park Chamber of Commerce board meeting as the organization’s president on Dec. 9. Looking back at 2020, she used the word “crazy” to describe how the pandemic affected both local businesses and how the Chamber supports them.
The “normal” that everyone wants to get back to was what business was like for most retailers and restaurateurs in town as the village moved from December 2019 into January 2020.
Gillian assumed the office of Chamber president at the beginning of 2018 and experienced the organization as like a football team ahead at the beginning of the second half but losing its momentum. Membership had declined incrementally, and increasing numbers of business owners were saying that they weren’t sure how the Chamber was benefitting them.
“I didn’t have a plan when I first started,” Gillian recalled, “so what I did was tell as many people as I could about my new venture and get ideas from them.”
She used the word “serendipity” to describe what happened next. She happened to be taking a class at the Urban Pioneer Group with Christine Barnard, who had been her very first client in the real estate business she started in Forest Park in 2006.
Barnard, as it turned out, is a marketing consultant and as the two talked more about what was going on in the Chamber, the more Gillian became convinced that Barnard should be hired as a consultant to bring new ideas and ways of operating to the Chamber board.
Part of what Barnard did was tighten up the board organizationally, relieving the Chamber’s executive director, Laurie Kokenes, of some of her duties and making the board members more involved and accountable in making the organization effective.
“Christine’s skill-set complemented Laurie’s,” said Gillian, “plus new members like Neil Rembos added energy and new ideas to the Chamber.”
“Laurie and I work well together,” said Barnard. “We have complementary skill-sets. She has the historical and institutional knowledge and very deep relationships with the village and other community partners. I am very well connected to young families and working moms in the area and bring more knowledge of digital outreach to the Chamber, both businesses and consumers.”
So as 2019 came to a close, Gillian was willing to retain her position of leadership for a third year, feeling like the Chamber was on a roll. New members were joining and old members who had dropped out were beginning to say, “Oh, the Chamber is doing things differently.”
“As 2020 began,” Gillian explained, “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll stay on for a third term.’ Everything we had put in place hadn’t played out yet. I wanted to make an impact. I felt like we had good momentum going and I didn’t want to stop.”
And then COVID-19 hit.
One good thing was that the Chamber was able to pull off the St. Patrick’s Parade the week before the lockdown started. Even with the stay-at-home order, business owners were hopeful at first.
“In the beginning,” Gillian recalled, “we heard everyone saying it’s not going to last that long, but then we got to the next month and it was still there. And then the next month and the next month.”
As the pandemic dragged on, the Chamber, like almost everyone else, had to pivot and do things differently. Zoom, for example. “I had never even been on a Zoom call,” she said with a chuckle, “and now I have several a week.”
She called Zoom a godsend because it allowed the Chamber board to continue functioning without having in-person meetings.
Another change was trying to help the small businesses in town survive at the same time that the Chamber, being a small business itself, was trying to do the same thing. They applied for and received a PPP loan and cut back the hours of both Kokenes and Barnard.
Functioning during the pandemic was a test for the Chamber and its members, and the test revealed that many stakeholders in town have a lot of character. Kokenes and Barnard kept working the same number of hours, even though they were being paid less. “We have a good mix of people on the board,” Gillian noted, “and they all stepped up. None of the board members dropped out because they were too busy.”
Barnard added, “With so much unknown and new things we needed to do this year, having two people work side-by-side to brainstorm and share the work has been critical.”
The board adapted to the situation by operating one week at a time and sticking to a tight budget. She noted that the board members gave emotional support to the members at large even while they were facing the same emotional challenges themselves.
One of the good things that came out of the pandemic’s stress test, according to the third-year Chamber president, is that the organization proved its worth to some of the critics in town who had not seen the ways in which membership could help their businesses. “I think,” Gillian said, “it really helped the Chamber prove itself to a lot of people. I think it enlightened a lot of owners who didn’t think the organization was going to be very helpful.”
During the interview for this article, Gillian kept praising other Chamber members for “stepping up” as she likes to say. Board members, however, appreciated her leadership as well.
Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries & Sleuths, said Gillian was the right person at the right time in the right place. “She is a good leader,” he said, “because she has a good attitude and listens, but she can also be firm. This year has been a crisis year and she handled it well, not just by herself, but working with Laurie and Christine to be sure all members and the public are being given the same story. She is also a good administrator.”
Barnard agrees. “Dorothy has been a great leader. She brings a sense of calm when needed but also pushes when needed. She is always willing to roll up her sleeves and help with whatever is needed. She also does a good job checking in with Laurie and myself to make sure we are doing OK.”
In January Rob McAdam will take over as president.