Building Relationships to Benefit Everyone
Kit Cramer, President & CEO of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce
By Beth Browne
Kit Cramer has been building relationships her entire career, most recently as President of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. When she came to Asheville two years ago, Kit found that although the community had a generally favorable impression of the Chamber of Commerce, there was little understanding of what the Chamber actually did. So she set out to build understanding both inside the Chamber and in the community.
Kit says the Chamber’s mission is to build community through business. They work to attract businesses and create jobs in the community, work with existing businesses and promote tourism in the area with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is part of the Chamber. Over two hundred thousand people visit the visitor’s center every year. Kit says the work they do is a three pronged stool, the foundation on which the community sits. “We help grow jobs, serve as a voice for business, and help our members thrive.”
One way the Chamber works to help its members thrive is by promoting relationships between members. Kit says, “We have over 130 events during the year to help our members build relationships, because that’s what business is based on—relationships.” A recent example is a local banker who had been very active on the Chamber for many years. When he served on a committee with an artist from the River Arts District, they had an opportunity to get to know each other. When the artist wanted to buy a building to rehabilitate for studio space, she called the banker for a loan because they knew each other and had already established a relationship. Kit says, “Building those relationships is important in any community, but especially here in Asheville, because that’s the way you build business.” Kit says the banker and the artist would never have met without the Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber hosts an event they call Mega-Networking, which brings about seventy-five businesses together for several hours. “It’s like speed-dating for businesses,” Kit says with a laugh. Business owners have a chance to pitch their business to the other people at the table and then they switch tables over and over. At one recent Mega-Networking session, one long-time Chamber member said he booked enough business to pay his Chamber dues for the next four years. Kit says it’s up to him to do a good job and to maintain those business relationships, but the Chamber offered him the opportunity to make connections he would not have made otherwise. She notes, “People like doing business with people they know.”
Attracting businesses to the area is another goal of the Chamber. Kit says, “We’re constantly on the lookout for businesses that want to relocate.” The chamber works hard to market the city to national and international relocation consultants. A recent success in this area is the New Belgium Brewery, which Kit says is a “huge win for us.” The Fort Collins, Colorado brewery will be cleaning up a previously contaminated site in the River Arts District, right on the river, bringing much-needed jobs and an economic boost to the area. She says she is especially excited about the brewery because the company is particularly environmentally responsible. She points to the bicycle in the company’s logo and mentions that one thing the company wanted was for their employees to be able to ride bikes to work. This fits well with the community and is a good thing for Asheville and the environment.
To help promote bicycling in the community, New Belgium has given a contribution to help build greenways throughout the River Arts District. Kit says, “Not only is this great for citizens, but it’s great for tourism as well.” Another brewer, Sierra Nevada, is opening a manufacturing plant in nearby Henderson County. Kit says, “Beer is becoming a big thing in this area and when you combine that with our restaurant scene here, it helps build tourism and has an economic ripple effect.”
A native Floridian, Kit had been working as a public information officer for a school district in Florida when she was offered a job doing the same thing in Charlotte in 1992. In her role with the school district, she was active in working with the community, including working with the Chamber of Commerce. After a year or so, she was approached by the Chamber and asked to become their Vice President of Communications. She says, “It was a really happening time for Charlotte, and I just loved that kind of work.”
After a few years as V.P. of Communications for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, Kit moved into the role of Group Vice President for Member Services and had the area councils, research division, communications and internal operations all reporting to her. Because of her education background, she eventually moved into the education public policy role, advocating for public education on behalf of the business community, connecting the higher education community with local businesses.
One of the things she was trying to do in that job was to recruit good people to run for the school board, and she ended up running for school board herself, becoming Vice Chair of the School Board. Halfway through her four-year term, her husband underwent open-heart surgery, and she decided to shift her priorities as well as her career goals. The one area of the Chamber she had not worked in was Economic Development, and she wanted to round out her skill set. She reluctantly resigned from the School Board and devoted herself to her family and the Chamber.
After a couple of years when her youngest child was graduating from high school, she decided she was ready to run an organization by herself. She contacted headhunters, put her name out there and told her boss of her plan. He put her back into Member Services where she devoted herself to mentoring young colleagues.
Kit was excited when she was offered a position as President of the Washington, D.C. International Downtown Association (IDA). It was the perfect job for Kit because back when she was in her twenties, she had a brief stint as a Main Street Manager for a small city in Florida, and she had the knowledge of downtown management as well as the membership expertise to make a difference in Washington, D.C.
It was a significant turnaround project for Kit because she felt the organization had not recognized the change in the economy or adjusted to it appropriately, and she knew she could make a difference there. She had made significant progress in turning IDA around when she was contacted about an opportunity with the Chamber of Commerce in Asheville. Kit’s husband wanted to get back to North Carolina so she accepted the job, even though she felt she had not completed the job in Washington. She says, “We wanted to be closer to our kids who were still in Charlotte, and Asheville was just a very cool community which made it a nice fit for us.”
Having seen local collaborations work well in Charlotte, after moving to Asheville, Kit began reaching out to the surrounding counties, offering to work together with them on regional issues. As a result, this past year Kit traveled with over fifty people to Raleigh to represent the region on a legislative visit. They got together with legislators and aides for two days where regional representatives met with individual legislators to discuss issues pertinent to that region.
For example, there was a law prohibiting the distribution of a certain amount of beer, which posed problems for both the New Belgium and Sierra Nevada breweries. They wanted to have tasting rooms where they could serve large numbers of visitors, but the law prevented it. So Chamber representatives met with legislators who were working to allow those businesses to serve larger numbers of people. “We wanted those tasting rooms. Rather than just being manufacturers, we wanted them to be tourist attractions too.” In this case, they were successful in getting the rules changed so these businesses could locate in Western North Carolina.
Another public policy issue arose when the one-cent state tax was expiring and AB Tech made the determination to push for a quarter of a cent sales tax for desperately needed capital improvements. The Chamber extensively researched the issue and decided to endorse the campaign in an environment that was pretty hostile to any suggestion of increased taxes.
Once the decision was made, the Chamber moved in to help the community college hone its message. The Chamber took a number of steps to help ensure passage of the sales tax. They wrote letters to the editor, sent messages to members, served as a point of distribution for yard signs and contributed guest editorials to local newspapers. Kit explains: “This was a good investment for our community because AB Tech is absolutely critical in training workers in customized skills for our businesses, so we advocated on their behalf to get out the vote.” The resolution passed, by a small margin, and Kit was proud to attend a recent groundbreaking at the college.
At the federal level, the Chamber became aware of a proposal requiring small businesses to file 990 forms for businesses spending over a thousand dollars. The Chamber felt this was egregious for small businesses and lobbied against it. This year they are working on tax and regulatory issues at the federal level as well. “We periodically weigh in on issues that we think are important to the business community and Buncombe County.”
The Chamber works hard to make sure the area is attractive to businesses. If the capital investment and the number of jobs are high enough, they can coordinate with the state and attempt to get incentives such as tax rebates or training dollars. If the employer is having trouble finding enough skilled workers, the Chamber will approach the local community colleges to customize a curriculum to meet that business’s needs. If a regulation is particularly troubling to a business, the Chamber can step in and make local government aware of it so they can do some problem solving and see if there is a glitch in the system that could be rectified. Kit says, “We have many partners in the economic game with us. We know that there is no one organization that can do everything. We have to work in collaboration with the city and the county and other organizations that can help build business, which in turn helps build the community.”
Kit says the community and the Chamber are not always in agreement on issues. For example, the community has long been divided on the issue of the future of the I-26 expansion. The county commission was pushing for one option to expand the one-lane portion of the highway and the city wanted a different option. I-26 is currently twenty-first on the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) priority list of twenty-two projects. When Kit learned of the logjam over the issue, she recommended a different approach altogether. She has proposed that instead of advocating for a particular solution, that the Chamber advocate for the adoption of a few basic principles.
She wanted whatever solution was adopted to be very safe, financially responsible, and for it to enable the project to move up on the DOT’s priority list. Although there has been no movement on this issue as yet, Kit feels hopeful that this new perspective will make a difference.
Unemployment insurance is another legislative issue they’re working on. With the economic downturn, the state had to receive loans from the federal government in order to pay for unemployment benefits. The state currently owes $2.4B to the federal government, the fourth highest state debt in the nation.
Kit says a comprehensive set of reforms is needed to keep the state government solvent. The Chamber also continues to work hard to bring in new businesses and help existing businesses to grow so that people on unemployment can obtain and keep jobs.
Kit says working with the Chamber of Commerce is very interesting because it’s different every day. Kit says in the course of a recent session in strategic planning, they found some of the original documents from the establishment of Chambers of Commerce. “Over the past two hundred years, the Chamber has grown from a single purpose federation of traders who organized to promote trade and cut costs by cooperating in certain operations, to a broad community development organization, which believes that progress will result when men and women of high purpose work unselfishly on problems which they have in common.”
Kit brings her many years of experience and a unique perspective to the job of heading the Chamber, which continues to benefit the community in myriad ways. She also has boundless enthusiasm and tireless energy with which to work on the many issues affecting the area. We are very fortunate here in Asheville to have this powerful woman on our side.
For more information visit: www.ashevillechamber.org
Beth Browne is a determined writer, reluctant farmer, delighted mother of tweens and addicted to sailing. At every opportunity, she dives into her fictional world and swims contentedly. She loves to read almost as much as she loves to eat and thinks her job at The Main Street Rag Publishing Company is just about perfect. Occasionally, she indulges in a spot of knitting but she practices yoga every single day. When she was five, she starred in the school play as The Ugly Duckling, even though she would have much preferred a lesser role as a Beautiful Swan. When she has time, she enjoys sharing her journey on her website.