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April 15, 2013

Hall moves from lobbyist to leader at Portland chamber

PHOTo / Tim greenway
PHOTo / Tim greenway
Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, walks through Monument Square in downtown Portland.

Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce

Address: 443 Congress St., Portland

Founded: Incorporated in 1926, although it has roots dating to 1853

CEO: Chris Hall

Members: 1,250

Revenue, 2012: $1,118,265

Contact: 772-2811

www.portlandregion.com

Organizations served: Community chambers of commerce of Falmouth-Cumberland; Portland; Scarborough; South Portland-Cape Elizabeth; Westbrook/Gorham and PROPEL

Through its paid staff, the Portland Regional Chamber provides the community chambers administrative services, lobbying and advocacy, billing and financial services and communication services and helps organize events. Community chamber volunteers fuel the rest of the chamber's efforts.

Chris Hall moved to Maine in 1986, settling in Buxton and going to work for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, where he was government affairs director for 17 years. In 2006, he accepted an invitation from Portland Regional Chamber CEO Godfrey Wood to launch an advocacy program. When Wood stepped down last year, Hall was named interim CEO. Mainebiz contributing writer Douglas Rooks sat down with Hall two weeks into his permanent appointment, following a national search with 85 applicants. An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: We were talking about the transition seven years ago from your previous posting at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce to the Portland Regional Chamber. Tell me more about the change in perspective.

Chris Hall: Working at the state chamber of commerce, I've had the privilege of working for some of the largest corporations in the state who were really focused on public policy as it related to business issues. It was a great education. But it was not a place-based experience. Coming to Portland, my skill set was the same, but suddenly I found it in service to this region. And that changed my perspective profoundly. Portland's a great place to be. And that pleasure has continued on for the last seven years. I'm sure it'll continue.

M: You said that in Augusta nobody ever bothered to go out for coffee, but in Portland, going out for coffee is an experience.

CH: It's not just an experience, it's part of the job. You get to walk around Portland, and my job takes me all around the region, so I get to visit in Scarborough and Falmouth and Gorham — all over. You get to meet shop owners, talk to people in the street, and you get a much broader set of perspectives than when you were dealing with issues and people up in Augusta. It's not just a good experience; it makes you a more effective advocate.

M: The regional chamber is a group of five chambers, which I'm not sure everybody knows about. How did that come to be, and how can you work for five different boards?

CH: We actually work for seven boards. We used to be, 30 and 40 years ago, separate community chambers. There was one in Westbrook, one in South Portland, and here in Portland, and so forth. Many employers decided that they would like to have one entity, so they merged into one group. But they also wanted to keep each municipality's identity separate. So we have boards that serve individual communities, and continue to do lots of community events and advocacy at the local level and through them we provide the singular staffing for all of them.

M: Plus there's a new chamber board for young people, the Propel group. How did that happen?

CH: One of the things we need to improve is to be more outward-looking, and embrace other parts of our community. Young people came to us a few years ago and said, "You know, you have great events, but we really would like something of our own." So they formed Propel, our young professionals group, and they now have a board, and we treat them in every respect like a community chamber. It opened up our organization to over a thousand new people who didn't really feel connected before. That's a big growth potential.

M: Is it just young people? Is it the social networking phenomenon, or is it replicable beyond that?

CH: It is replicable. Certainly the foundation of it was social networking, and we're starting to get great ideas for the organization from Propel, because young people bring a new aesthetic and a new sense of purpose to the conversation. One of the tricky things about chambers is that if you get good at something, you keep doing it. It's really good and challenging to have people come in and say, "Yeah, that's fine. But what if we did this?" When you get that kind of input and you adopt it, suddenly you've got a better product.

M: On the other end of the scale, a year ago Hannaford and Unum dropped their chamber membership. How did you respond, and what does it mean going forward?

CH: Since the recession, we've gone from 1,500 members down to 1,250, and we've been there for about three years, with the loss of those members and other members. It's a challenge to us to do a better job showing the value of what we do and who we are in the community. We're competing for limited resources; there's lots of good causes out there and we need to be sure that we're showing the value, not just to large corporations, but to all the employers that could be part of us. It's good to have to compete. That's how we're going to change ourselves.

M: Did you have to reduce staff?

CH: We did not. When we are fully deployed, we are eight people. And although we're going through changes because of the transition, we'll be back to eight people shortly.

M: One of the big topics in Augusta now is work force training, trying to get the right match between education and employers. What's your perspective?

CH: It's a very important part of what we need to become. In the next 10 years, employers are going to compete hard for talent. The old model was that workers would come to you. You could sit back and wait. That has changed. Every employer needs to think about competing for work force. And if you're not actively engaging learners, from young people up through adults, you are losing ground to those employers who are. Our job is to facilitate that transition for employers. So, yeah, it's a big deal.

M: It sounds daunting from the employer point of view. Can you just go and talk to a particular school?

CH: Maybe a decade ago the connections between businesses and schools were far fewer. Now, on the school side and the employer side, I've seen a huge increase in both sides reaching out. At Falmouth High School, they have a course endorsement for graduates. They've found business partners to help those students get experience, to help further their STEM education. There are hundreds of examples, literally. The transition is in process. And we want to make sure it's as broadly based as possible, because we've got a lot of kids who need experiences and won't do well without them. And with the demographics of Maine, we can't afford to lose a single one.

M: That's a big fear in Maine. We've been hearing about the brain drain for eons, that you get smart kids, train them well, they get started in a company and then they're gone. Is that still a danger?

CH:: Well, I have two kids who are college-age right now, and I would never expect they'd have to stay in Maine to work. I'd love it if they did. But I'm also happy for them to see the world. I'm one of those people who came here to raise a family. And we need to do a lot more of that. It's not so much losing them to the experience of the world, it's bringing them back and attracting new folks. We have a partner in town, the LiveWork Portland project, run by Jen Hutchins. Its purpose is to make those attractions, to get people to come into our social network where they fit. It's a conscious strategy, and I think Jen will be able to show us it's actually working, to counter the demographics we know are stacked against us.

M: Is Maine still attractive to young people from away?

CH: It sure appears to be. I have people come through this office at least three or four times a month looking for the connections to upgrade their jobs and stay here.

M: So hopefully it balances out.

CH: What I tell people a lot is, don't come here looking for the 40-hour-a-week, full-benefits job you can find in a big city. Come here with a passion for something, and a vision for how you can create a niche. Be entrepreneurial. It doesn't mean you have to start your own company, although you could think about that. Maybe a little different than a big city, but it continues to contribute to this region's vitality.

M: We talked about the tension between business and state government. If you were talking to a state government person right now, what could they do that would actually be helpful?

CH: One thing that has been in progress is removal of transactional friction from day-to-day operations. Whether that's the fees and permits and inspections, or whether it's business assistance to make things happen smoothly and quickly, in a predictable and effective way. It's always been an issue, but it gets better and worse. And the LePage administration deserves credit for having made it better. They've devoted resources. The hotline is working. That's one piece we always keep our eye on.

M: And the other piece?

CH: It's more complicated, but more important in some ways. We need to forge better alliances between the public and private sector. I'm looking for structural changes in the way government is built, so that we can have better government at less cost. We just had Falmouth and Yarmouth and Cumberland come together as three separate councils and work as a single entity to bring natural gas into their region. It's a landmark victory. And it was accomplished with the kind of different architecture I'm talking about. If Augusta can help us achieve more in that line without trying to shove anything down our throat — they tried that with school consolidation and it was bad idea — then we can really make some dramatic strides. If the Portland region isn't competing with the other great places around the country and the world, we're going to lose out. And we don't have to.

M: If you live elsewhere in Maine, you could look at Portland and see an enviable situation, and say, 'Everything is going Portland's way.' Is that true?

CH: There is a fragility to our prosperity that we're conscious of. We're the biggest service center in the state. We bear a disproportionate load when it comes to social services. Many people come here, about a third from Portland, a third from other parts of Maine and a third from away. That presents a host of issues we grapple with, but it's something we have to deal with. And other service center issues, from more efficient transportation to a high tax rate, they're all present. But what's also present are a bunch of people who've identified this as the place where they want to build a company and grow their family. It's a tribute.

M: And the other side of the coin?

CH: You're right, if we were in another part of Maine where things are not as prosperous, you might think, 'Wish we had their problems.' That's fair. One of the things I say a lot to my members is we have to be more conscious and sensitive about the rest of the state because it's not a separate economy. If the rest of Maine is doing poorly, we're not doing as well as we could. And vice versa. If our economy tanks, the rest of the state suffers too. We're tied together whether we like it or not. And when we can do something to help the rest of Maine, shame on us if we're not doing it

M: Let's look 10 years ahead. You're designing the business landscape of the Portland region. What would it look like and how would it be different?

CH: That's a great question. There would be more good-paying jobs, in a diversity of economic sectors. There would be deeper clusters, so when a spouse comes to the region, he'll have something to do while his wife works at Maine Medical Center. We'll be denser, physically, with more mass transit and fewer cars. But the coolest thing about the question is that I don't know. We try to craft the infrastructure and answer the challenges, but it's good to be in that not-knowing mode. Picking a winner never works. I'm pleased that's not just with the mayor and Portland's plan, but for all the economic development plans. In Scarborough and Falmouth and Westbrook, they're not picking winners either. They're focusing on their assets. They're building broad capacity for growth. And they're letting the market decide. So we're ready, but we're not just chasing down one little dream and losing sight of everything else.

Douglas Rooks, a writer based in West Gardiner, can be reached at editorial@mainebiz.biz.

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