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February 11, 2013

Heegan looks to Otsego's promise

By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star

---- — Eight months into her tenure as executive director of the Otsego County Chamber, Barbara Ann Heegan points to a list of accomplishments and promises more.*

“The chief goal for me was to be a resource to our members and to reach out to all of the members in finding out what their needs are, learning about their business, touring their businesses,” she said, adding that chamber has gained 50 members since she took over in last July.

Heegan was chosen in May and took over a month later. She replaced Rob Robinson, who was fired in November 2011 for allegedly creating a fictitious category in the chamber so that individuals living in the New York City area could enroll in its health plan.

The controversy created some problems initially, Heegan said.

“I had to build some relationships,” she said. “That did come up.”

Carolyn Lewis, director of the Otsego County Economic Development Department and a member of the chamber’s board, acknowledged that the transition wasn’t easy.

“When you have a longstanding leader and director like we did with Rob, when there’s nobody in that seat and you now have a board that has to step up and people have other jobs, it causes some stress,” she said.

It made some businesses reluctant to renew their memberships, Heegan said. But after meeting with them to “share with them the value of the chamber,” they decided to renew, she added.

“Barbara Ann makes a concerted effort to reach out to be part of the Oneonta community,” said Deborah Taylor,

director of the Otsego County Tourism Office.

Aside from membership gains, Heegan cited several other successful initiatives, such as a monthly Bagels and Benefits breakfast.

“We started with about six people,” she said. “It was very small, and it’s grown in the last month to 20, 25 people attending.”

In addition, “we have been working very closely with our local schools, as well as the colleges, in providing relationships as far as internships.”

Heegan said the interns come from Hartwick College and the State University College at Oneonta and primarily are accounting and marketing majors learning about the challenges that Otsego businesses face, while developing their own ideas about what the county needs.

She also said she’s working with other organizations and agencies, such as the Otsego County Economic Development Department, to promote the county.

“Carolyn Lewis is on our board,” she said. “And she has been a great resource to me, as I have to her, in that we want to create partnerships and invite people to the table.”

Lewis agreed that their two organizations operate in parallel.

“The Economic Development Office and the Otsego County Chamber have always had a very strong working relationship, she said. “Our missions are aligned, and we work well and play off of one another.”

She praised Heegan’s efforts to reach out to the numerous groups involved in business and economic development.

“She’s been really great and thoughtful about learning what everybody’s role is,” Lewis said. “And she’s focused on bringing the chamber’s valuable voice and resources to that conversation. It’s been a pleasure to get to know her and work with her, and she is exceeding expectations, certainly of the board. And I think the businesses are pleased.”

Heegan said she has several initiatives under way or planned.

One of her goals is to achieve accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has generated controversy in recent years.

A New York Times editorial last year described the U.S. Chamber as “a very well-financed arm of the (Republican) Party.” It has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent elections, primarily in opposition to Democrats, health care reform and elected officials who think global-warming is a threat. It set a $100 million spending goal for the November election.

For Heegan, though, accreditation is all about reaching the national chamber’s benchmarks.

“The accreditation just shows that we have solid structures of policies and procedures, (a) package for our members that we’re working hard for them as a united front, working with many chambers, that we’re recognized nationally for our work and for our efforts,” she said.

“It puts us at a higher credibility, just like a hospital being accredited,” she added.

Heegan said she supports efforts by an Oneonta group, led by Al Colone, to establish a sports tourism commission.

“I’ve attended some of his meetings and have been collaborating with him and think it has a lot of substance to it that would have great value to our county,” she said.

Still, there are obstacles to be overcome in attracting more business to Otsego, she said.

“I think housing has been one,” she said.

“People have been asking for newer housing, so that if a big company came here and brought a number of employees, where would they put all of their employees?”

“I think (the problem) is finding viable to develop on that has the access of infrastructures of water, electricity and making it in a location that has the means of transportation,” she added.

*Editor's note: This story was changed at 10:45 a.m. Feb. 11 to correct the spelling of Heegan's last name.