After five years serving on the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, Anya Milton recently transitioned into the role of executive director.
As it happens, her commute to work hasn’t changed much—about the length of a football field—because the Chamber offices are located in the Pioneer Pavilion Community Center right next door to the Boys & Girls Club where Milton previously worked as the Club’s program director.
While working for the Boys & Girls Club she was recruited to join the Chamber’s board of directors, eventually becoming board president. It was during her tenure as president that the executive director at the time, Ann Serwold, approached her to help develop a succession plan for the organization and see if “some day” she might be interested in the job.
“The intent was to grow me into the position,” Milton says, but Serwold’s timeline was much shorter than expected, as a new career opportunity was presented. Milton found herself in the interim executive director role at the beginning of August, just as the Chamber’s two biggest community events—the Maykayla Street Jam basketball tournament and the Ferndale Street Festival—were about to begin.
It was an “all hands on deck” situation to make the events run smoothly, and Milton was gratified to get positive feedback from vendors and the community. She attributes much of that success to the Chamber board of directors.
“Our board really stepped up. They were amazing,” she says. “We are all stronger for this struggle we went through. It feels good to be moving forward.”
The Ferndale Chamber of Commerce is the “Goldilocks” of Whatcom County’s chambers of commerce. It’s big, but not as big as the Bellingham Regional Chamber, yet bigger than the other chambers within the northern county. This gives the Ferndale Chamber a personal touch while offering more to its members than some of the smaller chambers have resources for—making it “just right.”
“I think we’re the best cross-section of all the north county chambers,” Milton says.
In September, just a week after officially becoming the permanent executive director, Milton attended the statewide conference of the Washington Chamber of Commerce Executives. Of the things she took away from the event, one of the most insightful for her is how each chamber picks an aspect of the many functions a chamber can perform and focuses on that one feature. Examples are tourism, advocating for chamber members’ businesses or businesses development.
Milton is looking at each one of these in turn, and putting mechanisms in place so that while a focus emerges, each important element is addressed. For Milton, it comes down to building relationships with community stakeholders.
Milton sees downtown development as a primary focus for the city over the next few years. She describes Ferndale as being in its “awkward adolescence,” where the residents, businesses and government will need to define the city’s identity as it matures. Will Ferndale just be a bedroom community to Bellingham or can it offer something more?
Milton thinks the Chamber needs to ask the question, “How do we support economic opportunity?”
A related issue is that of workforce development, training the next generation of workers. The Chamber is proud to partner with the Ferndale School District on the Ferndale Futures program. In its second year, this program helps students into career pathways where they have expressed interest by connecting them to local businesses in that field.
Another function of a chamber of commerce is to serve as a business advocate, educating members to understand policy issues that affect businesses and the greater community. A policy committee has been formed to help represent and educate member businesses.
The Chamber also oversees the Ferndale Visitor Information Center, and Milton recently met with Sandy Ward, executive director of Whatcom County Tourism. Milton says Ward “provided a new level of insight” into how the Visitor’s Center functions as part of the county’s tourism efforts as a waypoint for visitors often passing through the county between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle. Just one stop at the Visitors Center has the potential to create a “ripple effect” into the surrounding communities’ businesses.
The board’s current president, Antonio Machado of the Ferndale Phillips 66 Refinery, applauds the thought and effort Milton has put into her work.
“We’re trying to move the Chamber in a new direction, and it’s working,” he says. “She’s the right person.”
Pete Harksell of Pete’s Auto Repair has been a member of the Ferndale Chamber for about 25 years, and is currently the longest-serving board member. He sees the changes at the Chamber as a breath of fresh air that is encouraging interest in the organization.
“It’s good to see new board members,” Harskell says. “It shows the growth of the Chamber.”
Moving forward, Milton wants to continue that expansion with a focus toward being a more multi-generational, inclusive organization.
“I want us to be the ‘unifying force’ defined by the Chamber’s mission statement,” she says.
To learn more about the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce or to get involved, visit the website.