SALISBURY — The woman who helped take the Paducah, Ky., Chamber of Commerce from the brink of bankruptcy in 1999 to Chamber of the Year in 2011 has accepted the top job for the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce.
Elaine Spalding was the unanimous choice of the Rowan chamber board after a nationwide search for a new president to replace Bob Wright, who retired.
Spalding, 54, has led the Paducah chamber for 13 years and previously served as chamber president in Beaverton, Ore., home of Nike.
“She brings a real level of experience and expertise to the job that we think is going to be great for our chamber and community,” chamber Chairwoman Cindy Hart said. “She’s knowledgeable, personable and she will work well with our community partners.”
Spalding comes to the chamber at a pivotal time when business leaders, economic developers and elected officials are calling for increased collaboration to make Salisbury and Rowan County more competitive in the hunt for jobs and new private sector investment.
The Rowan chamber recently handed over ownership of the Gateway Building at 204 E. Innes St. to the Rowan County Tourism Development Authority, making the facility tax-exempt, to cut lease rates for tenants.
Although the chamber, tourism authority and Economic Development Commission have shared the building for years, not much collaboration has occurred. That needs to change, officials say.
Greg Edds, past chamber chairman, said he wants the chamber to work more closely with tourism and the EDC, as well as Downtown Salisbury Inc., which plans to move to the Gateway as well.
The search for a new chamber president, which Edds led, emphasized the need for collaboration.
That message came through loud and clear during the interview process, Spalding said. She met not only chamber members but elected officials and other community leaders.
“Everybody was so poised and anxious to really, really work together,” she said. “It was like, Team Rowan County.”
The most successful communities in the country are those that have embraced partnership and regionalism, Spalding said.
“I am very much a collaborator,” she said. “… That is exactly the kind of work ethic and style that I have.”
Spalding praised the upcoming changes at the Gateway Building, which include literally taking down the walls between tenants.
“I agree with that strategy,” she said. “It needs to be opened up a little bit and become more customer-service friendly.”
A consulting agency working for the Rowan chamber contacted Spalding and urged her to consider the position.
Spalding said she had been approached by several chambers in the past but always declined their offers, until Rowan. She and husband Keyth Kahrs, a watercolor artist who owns Leaping Trout Gallery in Lower Town, Ky., loved Salisbury, Spalding said.
“It felt like a good fit for both of us,” she said. “We see this as an adventure.”
They were impressed with the “great, diverse business community and the wonderful arts community,” she said.
Paducah and Salisbury are roughly the same size and both boast vibrant arts communities and lots of old, rehabilitated homes and buildings. The couple currently live in a 150-year-old house they renovated themselves, with Kahrs’ gallery on the first floor and their residence above.
They plan to buy a historic home in Salisbury and indulge their kayaking habit on area rivers and lakes, Spalding said.
Spalding grew the Paducah chamber from 700 to more than 1,000 members. The Rowan chamber has about 900 members.
In 1999, the Paducah chamber teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and had to take out a line of credit to meet payroll, Spalding said. Twelve years later, the organization won the prestigious Chamber of the Year award from the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, and in 2012, the chamber received a four-star accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Spalding received the Chamber Executive of the Year award from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Executives’ Association in 2005.
Spalding’s resignation came as a surprise in Paducah, where she is well-liked and known for her relentlessly positive attitude, according to the local newspaper, the Paducah Sun.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.