After 100 years, Greater Newport Chamber Continues Evolving
Original article can be found here
Erin Donovan-Boyle, the current executive director and Bonnie Gomes, board chair of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Meredith Bower)
When the U.S. Navy abruptly announced in 1973 that it was pulling its Atlantic destroyer fleet out of Newport and closing the base, local officials were stunned. Just four years earlier, the Navy had forced the state to spend an additional $8 million to change its plans for the proposed Newport Pell Bridge so that it would be high enough to allow the passage of aircraft carriers of designs projected to the year 2000.
The bridge, with a conspicuous bulge in the center, was completed in 1969. But now, suddenly, the Naval fleet was leaving, and the city was forced to take a hard look at its future. That’s when the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, along with a group of local business people, stepped in to form a redevelopment authority.
“An entire portion of the population was gone, so we had to redefine what Newport would look like,” said Erin Donovan-Boyle, the current executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce.
In 2020, as the chamber celebrates its centennial year in the midst of a pandemic, a similar challenge faces the city, its businesses and the local economy. “Essentially, that’s where we are again,” Donovan-Boyle said. “We’re working with our partners to redefine what Newport is. We’ll always be successful on the tourism and hospitality front … But how can we diversify so that we’re not so heavily reliant on one sector? We want to help [tourism and hospitality] get back to where they were [before the pandemic], but we also need to build up other industries around them.”
Outgoing board chair Bonnie Gomes has been involved with the chamber since 2013 and has seen it pivot to adapt to changing times and challenges, especially this year. “This organization stepped up [during the pandemic] as a partner to the entire business community, not only the membership, in assisting with PPE distribution, guidance for grant applications, equipment procurement to help with the “Take it Outside” program and so much more,” she said.
The chamber is looking to the future as it reaches out to young professionals, while paying homage to its past. The organization took on a name change this year, going from the Newport County Chamber of Commerce to the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce. As part of a rebranding, it now consists of four pillars: Connect, Innovate, Advocate and Enhance, Donovan-Boyle said. The pillars represent economic development; projects such as Innovate Newport; government relations advocacy; and lastly, the programs, services and benefits offered to members.
The rebranding is also an attempt to reach young professionals who do not understand the organization’s mission.
“We’re trying to tell our story better,” Donovan-Boyle said. “Some members may only know us for one of those four pillars; we want to be more comprehensive in the way we brand ourselves and talk about what we do. It’s on us to make sure that what we’re doing appeals to all generations and all levels of employees in all different types of organizations.
“A lot of the programs and services we offer have been traditional services. As we look forward, we not only recognize Baby Boomers headed toward retirement … but have the goal of engaging young professionals early on in their careers.”
Today, the chamber serves more than 1,100 members and is housed in the Innovate Newport building that was once the Sheffield School on Broadway. The chamber played an integral role in the development of Innovate Newport, which was designed as a co-work space with the hope of attracting entrepreneurs, small businesses and start-up companies to the city.
“Connect Greater Newport and Innovate Newport is helping to prepare our region for an outsized role in our economy for the coming years,” said Joe Pratt, the chamber’s incoming chairperson.
The chamber recently launched a regional economic development division, which is a private-public partnership with the community and philanthropy intended to develop a “robust business expansion, retention and outreach program,” Donovan-Boyle said.
“We surveyed more than 100 employers pre-COVID to determine what the general business atmosphere was like, and what hindrances there were in the region for growth, so we could identify how to help them,” she said.
The chamber also conducted region-wide “business walks” with municipal and state leaders, again pre-pandemic, visiting businesses to better understand issues. “Through that process we were able to develop high level policy initiatives and infrastructure needs,” Donovan-Boyle said.
At its core, the chamber continues in its role of providing networking opportunities for businesses and advocating for its members with elected officials at the local, state and federal level. “The chamber reminds us of the importance of business in the local community, in terms of supporting the community, jobs and taxes,” said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport and a member of the chamber’s board of directors.
In January, the chamber kicked off a strategic planning process to develop a 10-year competitive plan for the region. The chamber is also actively involved in the pursuit of multiple state and federal grants that have become available in the past year to aid struggling businesses. “They are being aggressive in applying for a lot of money that is coming out of not only Washington, but Providence,” Smith said. “They are the driving force on that for many different sectors.”
Donovan-Boyle said, “We represent the business community at the statehouse and federally, but mainly through state and municipal efforts. We are their voice, particularly for the small business owner.”
Of course, the pandemic forced a change in course in this year, particularly regarding planned events celebrating the chamber’s 100th anniversary. A major celebration at Marble House planned for March was canceled, as was a large-scale women’s summit set for October as a tie-in to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
“We had to shift gears really quickly,” Donovan-Boyle said. “We did move forward with some programming highlighting the importance of the women’s vote in the recent election, but certainly not on the scale we had hoped.”
It’s a gross understatement to say that 2020 has been unlike any year in the chamber’s history. “We faced unprecedented challenges from the pandemic,” Gomes said. “Our staff, board and volunteers responded brilliantly. They advocated for assistance, played a leadership role in distributing resources and have adapted to provide much needed new services, technical training, and tools to help with on-site sales and guidance to our members.”
Although their centennial hasn’t been the celebration the chamber had envisioned, Donovan-Boyle said it is looking at the next 100 years as a time to continue evolving. “We are currently working on a resiliency strategy that will be part of what we do after the pandemic and will shape what the future will look like,” she said.