Every community has its citizens who go above and beyond to give back and contribute to the greater good. Individuals work countless hours, managing myriads of details that for the most part no one will ever know about. Their nuanced attention to detail take them far beyond their civic duties and responsibilities. Their commitment creates the boundary between good and… great. One such individual who exemplifies these qualities is Sandra Slattery, Executive Director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.
For the past 28 years, Sandra has tirelessly led Ashland forward with vision, grace and collaborative optimism. She has helped to creatively sculpt and meld local partnerships and collaborations that have become the backbone of a positive and prosperous business community. These positive relationships have rippled out into community. They have inspired partnership, prosperity and collaboration in many sectors. The end result is a dynamic Chamber of Commerce that has been inspired to create and host all the annual events we have come to love. The endeavors have been mighty, the efforts enormous and the memories unforgettable. After all, who else could coordinate and produce the Festival of Light or the 4th of July events?
But the Ashland Chamber of Commerce is much more than our beloved events. The Chamber serves as the welcoming arm for our community, operates the Visitors & Convention Bureau, provides economic development services for our city, conducts educational workshops and conferences, publishes literature to promote tourism, business and for potential and current residents such as the national award-winning Living and Doing Business Guide. Over 150,000 people are served in person by staff and volunteers at the Chamber office and Plaza Information Booth. Numerous committees and task forces staffed by community and business volunteers work continuously to develop programs and projects for the overall betterment of Ashland.
Sandra thanks so much for speaking with me today. Please take us back to how this all began for you. There was not much in the bank account, you were young and very ambitious, and the Chamber had something like 100 members.
Yes, the early and mid 1980s was a difficult time economically for Ashland coming out of the recession. We had just recently formed the Visitor and Convention Bureau (VCB) and I had served one year as its Director when I was asked by the Board to take on the leadership of both the VCB and the Chamber and I enthusiastically accepted. There was a small invested group who cared about improving not only the economy of Ashland but its quality of life as well. I recognized by working together for the common good of civic improvement, we could achieve great things. You mention I was young – yes, I was and thought the challenges could be overcome in six months! Well, it took a little longer but achieve we did.
Wow Sandra, it seems like you have been very busy. What would you say are some of the central reasons for the organization’s success?
By setting achievable goals and bringing people together who are positive and optimistic, very difficult tasks can be tackled. When you have people who believe in success and put aside their personal differences in pursuit of bigger goals, much can happen. I think we draw people to the Chamber who are exceptionally creative and innovative but also able to achieve the goals we set. Business owners by nature are task oriented so they understand that goals need to be realistic and measureable to be effective and sustainable in the long term. We constantly seek improvement regardless of the project, program or event. We are never satisfied with the status quo and are always achieving and open to incorporating new ideas. I think that makes us successful.
It’s fantastic! We have such a wonderful, diverse group of Chamber members that are very engaged. Some have the time to be hands-on volunteers with projects and events, others contribute their financial resources for those projects but all care deeply about Ashland and work to make it better. We consciously keep the price of membership low so that price is not a deterrent. Our doors are open for involvement for a wide range of voices.
I was born, raised and graduated from college in Long Beach, California – Belmont Shore, for those who know the area. Raised during the Great Depression, my mother taught my brother, Charlie and me, by example, that life is about being grateful for what you have and about giving back. She was very involved as a community volunteer in numerous organizations throughout her life and as a little girl I remember being at her side going door to door raising money for numerous causes such as the March of Dimes, the PTA, and historic preservation just to name a few. She taught us that small gestures lead to big improvements and having a can-do attitude working with others creates not only success but personal happiness. She was right. Everyone knew each other on the street where we lived and it felt like a small town of sorts. My grandfather had a small business, knew everyone in the business district and always taught us that a promise and your handshake mean everything. His high integrity shaped our values and cemented our futures.
One important aspect of your work has been empowering young people to take leadership roles in the organizations. Can you please say more about this?
I love working with young people, mentoring them and giving them opportunities to succeed. They have tremendous energy, new ways of looking at things and haven’t been buffeted by the winds of time. They need encouragement but also learn from those with experience to teach them how to achieve their goals. I relate well to their optimism and the general sense of fun and good humor that youth provides. I have had many interns at the Chamber over the years and I believe in promoting from within whenever possible.
I am so very fortunate to have met my soul mate, my best friend and husband, Dennis, through involvement with the Chamber. We became friends over 30 years ago when he became an active volunteer with the Chamber serving as one of the first members of the Visitors and Convention Bureau. Right away we recognized we had many similar qualities: caring about our community, wanting it to prosper and being willing to work hard to make it happen. I loved his sense of humor, integrity and intelligence. Together over the years our friendship grew as did our community activities and our love. For decades we have had the pleasure and honor to serve our community through volunteer leadership and continue to be very active today. We have lived a life in Ashland of rolling up our sleeves and getting involved. (Note: Sandra is the current President of the Ashland Community Hospital Foundation and Chair of the SOU President’s Advisory Committee; Dennis is in the Lithia Springs Rotary Club, and is active on campus at SOU where he teaches accounting. He also serves on the Ashland City Council.)
I believe it all comes down to respect for others, keeping an open mind and recognizing you are not always right. We have had in the past and currently enjoy a group of people, both on our staff and with our Board and committee members, who care about each other and constantly strive for the greater good. We believe in the practical application of developing and strengthening community partnerships through collaboration. This builds strength, enlarges our scope of work and results in community progress. It truly is a joy to create and manage dynamic programs and projects by working with such wonderful people. It enriches my life every day and I deeply appreciate the contributions of so many individuals who give and give and give to make this community better each and every day.
Each year, the Chamber raises over $50,000 to organize, coordinate and run the 4th of July. Those resources come from donations and fees to help pay the costs of insurance, fireworks, parade and park costs. The Festival of Light creates a similar challenge in needing to raise nearly $40,000 in order to hire the contractor to hang and check all the lights and ornaments, purchase improvements each year to the decorations such as the new LED candles and Plaza decorations this year, along with parade costs, entertainment and insurance. Many organizations have stopped producing these large community events due to the costs but we believe that they are part of our quality of life and worth the cost and time. Beyond the costs of producing these and other events, is the reward that comes from working with hundreds of volunteers to produce the events that bring such joy to our community. Someone asked me recently, what if the Chamber didn’t do these events, who would and how different would our community be if they never happened?
You said something very interesting to me about accomplishing difficult goals. Many towns may throw up their hands and simply say, “We can’t do this.” This hasn’t happened in Ashland. Tell us why and how you observe this success occurring.
I think we accomplish difficult goals because we believe we can – we have positive outlooks and are not fearful of attempting something that could fail. Businesses do that every day. We ask a lot of questions and attempt to determine the challenges we might face. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. It is a matter of being a bit stubborn and persistent at times when you have a worthy goal, making sure you have the right team and generate the necessary resources.
My husband, Dennis; his heartfelt caring for others and the contributions of his time and expertise to benefit the community and not just himself. He is truly the person I admire most in life – we are a team in the truest sense of the word. Next, are all the people I get to work with every day: my staff, our volunteers, our Board members and committee members (many of whom have become my closest friends over the years). These are the people who through their involvement and leadership in our community leave a legacy of good work that we each benefit from even if we don’t know it.
I read an article recently that said people are becoming less civically involved, less trustful of others and it deeply concerned me. Community involvement has been my life’s work. I believe our country needs people who care about the greater good. The way this is achieved is working together in civic involvement and by seeing the good in others and their positive intentions. Besides it’s fun and shouldn’t we all have joy with others as we accomplish things in life? After all, it does all go by so fast!
Ashland Chamber of Commerce