Luca Paris doesn’t officially take over as president and CEO of the Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber of Commerce until Sept. 1, but he’s already meeting with local business owners to learn what they want from their relationship with the organization.
“I know there’s a lot going on, but I also know that there’s a lot more we can do,” Paris said Tuesday morning at a gathering of about 20 downtown Keene business leaders. “So, my next couple of months are going to be meeting and saying just a simple phrase: ‘... In a perfect world, what [do] you envision the chamber being, as part of your world?’ ”
And at the meeting — convened by the Keene Downtown Group, a collection of Main Street-area business owners, and hosted at Paris’ Central Square restaurant, Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe — he heard a consistent message: Local merchants want more communication from, and collaboration with, the chamber.
“I could go on for days about what [organizations] we have, but nobody is talking to everybody,” Tim Pipp, owner of Beeze Tees Screen Printing, said of the various economic groups in the area, including the chamber, the Keene Young Professionals Network, the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and the Keene Downtown Group. “And I would love the chamber to be, not necessarily the voice, but the organizational part of every group.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, attendees like Pipp and Ted McGreer of Ted’s Shoe & Sport expressed confidence in Paris’ ability to make the chamber a bigger presence in the heart of Keene.
“When I pay the dues to the chamber, I do it politically because it’s a great thing to be a downtown merchant and be a paying chamber member,” McGreer told Paris during the hourlong meeting. “But really, at the end of the day, I want to see more [return on investment]. I want to see the chamber more involved, and I think you’re the guy to do it.”
The chamber, which works to improve the local business climate through networking and programming, announced late last month that Paris would take over for retiring president and CEO Phil Suter, who has led the organization since 2013.
Paris, who has owned his eatery for 21 years, said he has started brainstorming how the chamber can increase communication not only in downtown Keene, but across the entire region. For example, he said he plans to develop an online platform to connect area entrepreneurs. This is especially important, Paris said, now that the chamber covers Peterborough, after its chamber merged with Keene’s earlier this year, primarily due to the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s different ways of creating communities, and creating a real online community where everyone is weighing in is going to be an important part of this,” Paris said. “So, whether you’re a member from Peterborough or Keene, we want you to see and hear everything that’s going on in all the places. So I think one of my first things is going to be creating this real online community, with postings, with interactions, with different ways of getting people together.”
Paris added that he’s still working on exact plans for this online platform, but believes it will be an effective way to engage all of the chamber’s 500-plus members. (The Sentinel is a chamber member.) This type of enhanced online presence could also help with another priority identified Tuesday: a unified events calendar.
“There’s probably 13,001 calendars that exist in Keene,” said Pipp, who serves on the chamber’s board. “I always see on the Facebook groups, ‘What’s going on in Keene?’ And people are spouting out what’s going on, but there’s not one place to check. And I’ve been saying that for years, that we need just a central hub. And if it lived at the chamber, that would make sense to me.”
And while much of Tuesday’s meeting focused on downtown Keene businesses, several local entrepreneurs encouraged Paris to take a more regional approach to his new role at the chamber. Denise Meadows, co-owner of CC&D’s Kitchen Market and Catering, who described herself as a “regional cheerleader,” noted that the chamber’s recently launched marketing push focusing on drawing visitors, workers, students and young families to the area is a good start.
“Even up until a year ago, it was Peterborough doing their thing and Keene doing their thing, and really not having that cohesive marketing,” she said. “So, this regional branding is kind of taking that, but there still needs to be more help with some of these organizations that are doing some of these things, and the communication of it.”
Paris said he plans to talk to business leaders throughout the area, and beyond, to help promote the Monadnock Region, and bring more events here. For instance, he said he wants the chamber to launch a Taste of Peterborough event, similar to the Taste of Keene food festival that drew thousands of people to Central Square last month.
“By just throwing that ball into the court and seeing who wants to pick it up and play, that’s what I’m excited about, and seeing what’s going to happen there,” he said. “Because Taste of Peterborough will happen. Taste of Keene is going to happen again. What other events can we do and be a facilitator for, creator of?”
And, Paris reassured the group, he believes this regional approach to the chamber will benefit them, too.
“Promoting the region is promoting Keene,” he said. “We are still the hub of this area.”