Those who have been away from the Evanston Chamber of Commerce for a few years may have a twinge of déjà vu when they see Elaine Kemna-Irish is the new executive director and Richard Peach is the president. Ms. Kemna-Irish worked in other capacities for the Chamber, including serving as interim executive director for a few years, and Mr. Peach served as its president some 10 years ago. The two officially took the helm in May of this year.

In an interview with the RoundTable earlier this month, both Mr. Peach and Ms. Kemna-Irish acknowledged that the Chamber faltered for a while but said they have ideas to extend the Chamber’s influence, attract and retain members and engage the board more fully. She said she sees some opportunities in social media; he sees others in face-to-face conversations.

An example of those conversations, said Mr. Peach, is to establish a past-presidents council to advise each new president and president-elect.  “So if an idea comes up, we can say, ‘We tried that, but it didn’t work – tweak it a bit and try this approach.’”

“I want to enhance all the capabilities of the Chamber by bringing it into the 21st century,” said Ms. Kemna-Irish. “We’ve improved the website, added a community calendar where members can post their activities; we have e-blasts, videos and other social media.”

“Our vision is to make the Chamber the hub … the umbrella organization for merchant groups. … We want to connect to people and to the community,” said Mr. Peach.

“We don’t want other business groups [in Evanston] to think they have to make their own mini-chambers,” added Ms. Kemna-Irish.

The Chamber has traditionally offered face-to-face connections in its networking breakfasts, business lunches and after-hours gatherings. Something new, said Ms. Kemna-Irish is CAC – Conversation and Connections. “We have a gathering at a member’s place of business, usually a restaurant, which provides appetizers or snacks. Members come, buy a couple of drinks and get to hear a bit about the place – give a ‘mini-commercial,’” she said. Bringing in some paying customers is “a way we can give back to our members,” she said.

Expanding the Chamber’s reach into the community is also a priority.

“What Elaine has been able to do for us is to re-establish partnerships with the City, Northwestern and other merchant groups,” said Mr. Peach.

“We are well-connected with the City,” said Mr. Peach, “so we can help businesses get through the red tape.”  He says he also sees opportunities for members of the Chamber to serve as mentors for new businesses and to talk with them about volunteer opportunities with Evanston not-for-profits. “There are people who want to connect with the community and who many not know where to put that energy.”

Both Ms. Kemna-Irish and Mr. Peach pointed to the contributions Northwestern University makes to the City, particularly  the $12-14 million the University spends annually on local goods and services and the hundreds of volunteer hours logged each year by students. Two major Chamber-University events, the annual business mashup and the “Paint Evanston Purple” days, culminating in Evanston Day at Ryan Field – possibly a week this year – benefit not only local businesses but the entire Evanston community, they said.

Mr. Peach said Northwestern’s playing at least one football game each year at Wrigley Field may be overall a wash for Evanston’s economy, which generally receives a boost with each home game. “They’re adding one home game and playing one at Wrigley Field. So we didn’t lose a game, but we didn’t gain one, either,” he said.

Both Ms. Kemna-Irish and Mr. Peach seem upbeat about the months ahead. “It’s fun having the Chamber back in a leadership role again,” said Mr. Peach.

“I want the Chamber to be as relevant as it has always been,” said Ms. Kemna-Irish. “We want businesses to grow and stay in Evanston.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...