New executives energize Chamber of Commerce
Homer's Chamber of Commerce is unique, according to new Executive Director Debbie Speakman. "A chamber and visitor center are not usually combined. We are changing the Chamber's message — it is not just a visitor center," she said, "the chamber's interest is business advocacy at local, borough and state levels, and building economic development. We will be functioning as a team, chamber and visitor center, but actually working as two entities."
Speakman is joined by new director of media relations, Nyla Nightcap. Both are sincere and passionate about developing and supporting Homer's existing and fledgling businesses. Neither woman is new to Chamber work.
Speakman served as chamber director of media relations from 2011-13, and she has worked in Alaska tourism all over the state for 18 years: as tour director, tourist motor coach driver, doing a stint as a naturalist tour guide, and marketing Alaska to South Florida, explaining different options for tourist Alaska experiences. Now she is hitting the ground running in her new position.
Lightcap, too, was a chamber champion as visitor center manager from 2010-2013, and now returns as director of member relations. In the interim, she was Homer Senior Center's membership marketing person for several years.
"I am passionate about Homer, excited to give back to the businesses that are so generous to nonprofits and schools." Growing up in Homer, she experienced firsthand how important business support is to these entities. "I have come full circle. I want to help support the local businesses and give back," she said. Nightcap left the state for college, returning in summer to work as a deckhand to help pay for school. She always looked forward to coming back to Homer permanently.
The visitor center remains in the capable hands of manager Jan Knutson and director of marketing, Bridget Maryotte. As manager, Jan meets and greets all the visitors that come into the visitor center, assisted by a handful of great volunteers. She also greets passengers who disembark from the cruise ships, coordinates the Fourth of July and Winter Carnival parades and the Holiday Tree Lighting ceremony. Bridget manages the marketing plan for the chamber.
"I can't ask for better employees," said Speakman, "they make me look so good!"
Speakman believes wholeheartedly that Homer is a great place to live, work and own a business. Local businesses provide employment, support kids, schools and nonprofits and pay taxes to the borough. The chamber plans to increase its business advocacy in terms of jobs, training and ease of locating and working in Homer. "The message to people living in our area is, "if you love where you live, live local — support the local businesses," she said.
Currently there are over 1,200 businesses in Homer, a small fraction of which are tourism-related," said Speakman. "We are working to support local business and attract new business to create a thriving business economy."
In addition to supporting existing business, the chamber is working to make Homer more attractive to new businesses by making sure we have the services they need: sufficient affordable housing, harbor expansion and better internet and phone service.
"There has been some improvement in communications services, but we need to continue to build more access to high-speed internet and reliable phone service; we also need to showcase the quality of life to new business prospects," said the chamber leader. "We are facilitating the conversations. We want to make it more attractive to the service providers."
Another key — since there is not much room for more brick-and-mortar shops, according to the director — is to encourage and support entrepreneurship in conjunction with the Small Business Development Center and local mentorship. Many local entrepreneurs operate and own multiple businesses, according to Speakman. She cites Scott Fraley as a good example of a local entrepreneur: he DJs weddings, does tile work and owns and operates Peninsula Rain Gutters."
The chamber also stresses the importance of mentoring and hopes to facilitate mentorships for new businesses. Adrienne Sweeney of AJ's and the Driftwood Inn was Speakman's first Homer mentor. "She is a smart savvy businesswoman who finds a way to balance family and business. She invests in ways to increase her knowledge base so her businesses are competitive."
Speakman is excited about Homer's economy. "There is well-paying consistent employment at the hospital, in health care, in marine trades and tourism." But one of the problems that a young workforce faces is finding affordable homes. "We have many steady year-round jobs here — good, steady jobs."
Marine trades make up a huge key part of our economy: it would be incredible to see the deep-water harbor expansion happen. The harbor is maxed out and boats are rafted four-deep. Marine trades is a thriving industry, she added, including welding, net-mending, boat-building and commercial fishing.
The hospital is Homer's biggest employer; it is always recruiting. We are committed in helping both the medical and marine trades industries retain employees. We want to bring in families in their '30s to set down roots."
The other more obvious part of the employment equation is tourism, but not just during the summer — the other piece is off-season marketing. It is a busy industry year-round.
The Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center are working hard to represent Homer to visitors and locals alike. The team here is commited and passionate about their jobs and because they "love where they live, they live local." They welcome the community to share in living local on Nov 25 for Small Business Saturday and to support the chamber during their annual fall raffle.