In the past year, the Portland Regional Chamber has expanded beyond the usual chamber of commerce focus of lobbying for lower taxes and less regulation for businesses. Chris Hall, who has been chief executive officer of the organization for 15 months, said he sees a chamber of commerce as a regional network, devoted to encouraging widespread prosperity and stronger communities. Hall was born in New York, went to Bowdoin College and earned a law degree at Boston University. He worked for a law firm in Portland and then the Maine State Chamber of Commerce for 17 years before joining the Portland chamber seven years ago as senior vice president of governmental relations.
Q. How is it different working for a regional chamber instead of a statewide chamber?
A. It really changes the nature of what you do. You get involved in some smaller things that let you work with city councils and towns and other organizations that make up the community, like Preble Street (Resource Center).
Q. Sounds like a lot more issues to deal with.
A. It’s a ton more. Right now we have about 1,400 members and it’s the largest individual chamber of commerce in the state. We have a little competition with Chip Morrison in (the) Androscoggin County (Chamber of Commerce). It’s a friendly thing. What we are is a business network. Not just a commerce network, but also a community organization network. Our job is to support the volunteer activity of hundreds of people doing hundreds of things around the community, from concerts in Scarborough, to helping to implement Route 1 changes in Falmouth. It’s a big network and it’s got lots of interesting connections.
Q: Since you took over as CEO, the chamber seems to be expanding the focus beyond the typical range of things chambers take on. True?
A: In the traditional old-school approach to chambers of commerce, it’s all about the business, baby. There’s nothing wrong with that, but here in this community, I think Portland and the whole region is an extraordinarily diverse collection of people and how people relate to their community is broader.
Q: And that includes the 100,000 Homes campaign, an effort to end chronic homelessness? (The chamber and other groups recently helped 77 chronically homeless people move from shelters to permanent homes)
A: Homelessness is part of it. You have to deal with it and be part of the answer. We have board members here who go out and census the homeless community and are part of the 100,000 Homes campaign.
Q. How does that expanded focus sit with the members?
A. I’m a big metrics guy. When I took over here we had 1,250 members and we have 1,410 now and my long-term goal is 2,000. Our retention rate is much improved. And so the metrics are telling me that people like what they’re seeing and they’re joining up to show it. We also have a state chamber of commerce, and any time Dana (Connors, the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce) needs help, he calls me and vice versa. I represent this region’s interests and if this region’s interests are touched, I’m up there, but I don’t want to duplicate Dana’s work. It’s kind of a division of labor. We’re focused on the State House, but we do it as part of team.
Q. Your chamber represents a diverse region and probably the most liberal part of the state. How do you balance all the competing interests and ideologies?
A. I would not be doing my job if I tried. If I tried to make everybody happy, basically I’m not doing anything. I pulled my board together last fall and asked what they wanted, and regional prosperity is what came back. I don’t have a lot of people pushing back and saying, “Why would you want that?” We are moving in a good direction by being honest about what we want to achieve. Portland is probably a few clicks to the left of the center in the state, but I’m seeing all kinds of growth, all kinds of jobs being created and if the current business climate in Portland is not perfect, I think it’s doing a pretty good job.
Q. Among the things you got involved with was offering to host negotiations between the Cumberland County Civic Center and the Portland Pirates hockey team when they were locked in a standoff last winter. It was a pretty highly charged situation – why step into it?
A. We looked at the civic center situation and said, “You know what? The civic center is best with the Pirates and the Pirates are best in the civic center.” If you’re afraid of a little controversy, we’re not doing our job. I don’t want people thinking, “Oh, that’s too controversial, the chamber won’t get involved.”
Q. What’s your major focus right now?
A. We’re building relationships now with municipal leaders. I think of (Mayor) Colleen Hilton in Westbrook and (Town Manager)Tom Hall in Scarborough and certainly, Mayor (Michael) Brennan (of Portland). I think we’re building relationships that will stand the test of time. I see a lot of long-term relationships and investments that will serve us well. You can never predict the future, but if the chamber of commerce is actively engaged in all the communities and pushing the goal of prosperity – and not just for a few people – if we’re doing that, then five years from now, we’ll make progress. This is not a strategy of a month or a year, this will work long-term.
Q. If you could wave a wand and get – or get rid of – one thing, what would it be?
A. We need to do more regional effort and less as individual communities. There are a lot of areas where we could act in ways that are more efficient, and we can attain greater excellence by working together, in areas such as transportation, in education and in business development – all those are things that could work better on a regional basis. If I could wave a magic wand, it would be to open people’s minds to what regional collaboration could do. Over time, as we build trust and a foundation, you’ll see more things open up like that.