One of the biggest accomplishments for the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce in 2012 was construction of a concert stage and event center at the fairgrounds.
“It was both scary and exciting,” said Mark Wessels, who retired as Chamber president and CEO in December.
Scary, he said, because of the large amount of money the Chamber committed to raising for the project and exciting because a new, permanent stage had long been a dream for the Washington Fair Board.
“And thank goodness we had the facility with the storm that blew in Saturday night of the Fair,” added Jennifer “JB” Giesike, longtime Fair coordinator who was promoted to replace Wessels as the new Chamber president, CEO and Fair manager.
Wessels and Giesike sat down with The Missourian to look back on 2012 and discuss projects and goals for the new year. The Chamber is responsible for not only its operation, but also the Washington Town and Country Fair, Washington license office and tourism department.
Giesike said the concert stage and event center was a big hit with all of the performers at the 2012 Fair, in addition to providing safe shelter for the entertainers, volunteers and fairgoers during a major thunderstorm that blew in, forcing officials to shut down the grounds.
The facility features a 5,000-square-foot reinforced concrete main stage, a 1,200-square-foot high-ceiling storage area, an 800-square-foot recreation room, a 400-square-foot office area, restrooms, loading docks and driveways, and a paved parking area.
To date, about $321,000 in pledges and gifts have been raised for the stage project and fund-raising efforts are ongoing to reach the $335,000 promised by the Chamber. Total cost for the project was approximately $750,000.
Wessels said the city covered the entire cost up-front and the Chamber will pay the money back over the next five years. At the Chamber’s recent Christmas party, a check for $95,000 was presented to city officials toward the stage.
In addition to seeking pledges from area businesses and organizations, the Chamber received many in-kind services to keep costs down and make the stage a reality.
Wessels said the multi-use facility is available throughout the year for the city park department and schools to utilize, as well as other groups.
“That’s the really neat thing about this facility. It can be used year-round, not just the five days of the Fair,” he said.
Build Up Reserves
Wessels said another highlight of 2012 was reaching a goal of having $300,000 in reserves.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time and it’s something we had in the past, but with capital improvement projects over the years it had diminished,” he said.
“Having a healthy reserve is so important because if the Fair would be a total rain out or we lost a lot of money on it for whatever reason, we would need that money not only for the next year’s Fair, but also for the Chamber to function.”
Wessels said the Fair is the Chamber’s biggest revenue producer.
A big change that occurred at the end of 2012 was Wessel’s retirement and Giesike’s promotion to Chamber president.
“It’s been an easy transition since Jennifer was already working in the office and knows so much of what’s going on,” Wessels commented.
Giesike said Wessels has been very helpful as she assumes her new role and is always just a phone call away.
Another staffing change is the recent promotion of Amanda Griesheimer, who has been serving as both Chamber and Fair assistant the last four years, to marketing director, a new position within the organization. A search for Griesheimer’s replacement is already under way.
New for 2013
Discussions about the need for a community event planner of sorts started this past year and will continue in the new year, said Wessels.
Giesike said a committee is being formed to explore such a position or department, and how it would function. Input is being sought from the city, parks department, Fair and Chamber board, the athletic departments and high schools and other related groups.
Giesike said details still need to be figured out.
“But it’s something we hope to get done in 2013,” she said. “We’re forming the committee now to start brainstorming.”
The Chamber also hopes to offer webinars, given by its members for members, in the new year. The webinars would replace the Chamber’s Speaker Series which has run its course, Giesike said.
New Committees, Websites
The Chamber is starting the new year with three new committees — membership/PR, finance and buildings grounds.
Giesike said membership will be a big focus in 2013, both in retaining and attracting members, and promoting the value of being a member.
“We’re also looking at restructuring our dues, reviewing the categories we have for members and whether we have too many,” she said.
The Washington Chamber currently has about 705 members, and is the second-largest, budgeted Chamber in the St. Louis Metro area.
The finance committee, which will have both Chamber Board and Fair Board representation, will begin meeting soon.
Giesike said it’s important for directors from both of the boards to get together regularly and look at the “whole picture” in terms of the Chamber and its mission.
“I’ve always wanted to see both groups have a joint meeting to make sure we are all on the same page and that will happen in February,” she said. “I hope we can get together a couple of times a year. I want to go over with everyone the mission of the Chamber and just talk about what we do overall, and we’ll do the same thing on the Fair Board side.”
A redesigned website for both the Chamber and Fair will be completed in the new year.
“The websites will be much more user-friendly and have a lot more information on them,” Giesike said. “We also hope to post information on the license bureau online as well.”
Giesike said she’s excited about her new role and the future of the Chamber.
“I think 2013 is going to be a good year,” she said.