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Chamber reflects on 2020’s changes

Thursday night’s annual meeting of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce was a bit different than normal.

Instead of the packed dining room at Cross Creek Country Club, along with a series of recognitions and speakers, this year’s event was considerably shorter, streamed online via the chamber’s YouTube channel because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The message from those who spoke was also quite different. Again, because of the pandemic.

Each of the three speakers — chamber executive Randy Collins, outgoing board chair James Etringer, and incoming board chair Chris Lumsden — spoke of how challenging 2020 was, and how the chamber had been forced to be flexible, to adapt to the radically changing business and social environment created by the pandemic.

Etringer perhaps best summed up how 2020 was when he referenced last year’s annual meeting, and his thoughts at that time when his remarks were from the perspective of an incoming board president.

“Looking back at last year’s annual meeting … we came off a very successful year. … Our membership was at an all-time high, every event we held that year was successful. … My thoughts were … let’s keep this momentum going, let’s keep the train on the tracks, don’t mess it up.

“Little did we know what was to come for 2020.”

COVID-19, already spreading quietly in different parts of the world, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization less than a month after the chamber’s 2020 meeting, and before March was over, North Carolina — as well as much of the rest of the nation — was in a lockdown with severe limits on activities outside of homes.

While many of those limits were eased somewhat throughout the year, the chamber ended up canceling most of its scheduled events in 2020, including the Autumn Leaves Festival.

“This is a major event for our community, a major event of the chamber. …The cancellation for that festival was hard. … It reaches deep into our community,” Etinger said. Not only is the festival a major tourism and cultural gathering, he said it’s often the largest fundraising opportunity for many of the local charitable organizations which set up vendor booths there.

“We hope to host that event again in 2021 … but time will tell,” he said.

The year was not entirely lost, however. The outgoing president reminded those watching that the chamber was able to hold a golf tournament, a virtual job fair, a fundraising chicken stew (selling more than 400 quarts) and an online auction. This was along with regular Zoom meetings that gave chamber members a chance to touch base with one another as well as hear from local government leaders.

“2020 was a uniquely challenging year, one that produced unprecedented disruption for most businesses here in Surry County and across the globe,” said incoming board chair Chris Lumsden, who serves as president and CEO of Northern Regional Hospital. He expressed hope that with proper precautions, the widespread acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine, “and a few answered prayers, 2021 will be better for us.”

While many businesses have found themselves struggling to survive, Lumsden encouraged the community to remain part of the chamber and to rely on it as a resource.

“The chamber is more relevant to our businesses and community than ever before,” he said. Lumsden said many folks taken the chamber for granted during good times, when outside support may not seem as important for a business’ success, but during lean times the chamber’s ability to help drive the business community becomes evident.

“Our chamber is one excellent source of help during good and bad times,” he reminded those watching, adding that it only makes sense for area businesses to support and work with the chamber, for somewhat selfish reasons if for no other purpose. “What’s good for our chamber is good for our community. And what’s good for our community is good four our and your business.”

Lumsden said during the pandemic, and moving forward, the chamber has had to become more nimble, more creative, to adjust to the changing business climate. That’s meant, and will continue to mean, constantly reevaluating activities it carries out, what events can be held safely, and to look for innovative ways sponsors, chamber members and event participants can be part of chamber activities.

Randy Collins, chamber president and CEO, started the night’s meeting, with comments echoed by the other speakers, but he also had a word of optimism and encouragement for those watching.

“2020, as you know, was a challenging year for all of us, but I know 2021 brings us hope for better times and prosperity for your business.”

He said, no matter the circumstances, the chamber would continue to work to find ways to fulfill its mission, which is to advance, promote, and encourage “successful business growth for our members.”

After the three men spoke, the annual Citizen of the Year award was president to local businessman and former Mount Airy major, David Rowe. A full account of that presentation is available in the Friday, Feb. 13 edition of The Mount Airy News (Rowe named Citizen of Year) or online at https://www.mtairynews.com/news/94395/rowe-named-citizen-of-year.

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