The West Nipissing Chamber of Commerce welcomed a full tent of members and guests at Sonia’s Patio for their 2023 annual general meeting on May 17, featuring guest speakers Greg Demers of KOA Sturgeon Falls and Mayor Kathleen Thorne Rochon. The new Executive Director, Nathan Sauve, noted that the Chamber has been through significant changes as a result of pressures during the pandemic, but “We are looking to a bright future ahead,” with a very focused and active executive of volunteers representing local business, headed by President Pamela Fraser.
In highlights, the Chamber is working in tandem with both the North Bay and Sudbury chambers by collaborating on a value-added ‘Chambers Perks’ app combining the discounts of all member chambers, available to businesses and their employees, as well as programs promoting rural and northern immigration initiatives to help ease employee shortages faced by local employers. The very popular and highly acclaimed Feast on the Farm will be revived this year, they also announced.
It was a light-hearted evening with a few serious overtones as Greg Demers took the podium to describe Economic Development as “the buzzword to get money from the government.” Demers, a former president of the Chamber, spoke of his investment in West Nipissing and the recent transfer of control of the KOA to his son. “The definition of community and economic development are parallel. Community development produces assets for improving the quality of life …and economic development mobilizes the assets. …We’re all small business owners. (…) We create new jobs, new products, new revenues, new services and innovation.” He spoke of the positive aspects of being a small business owner, the satisfaction, as well as the disadvantages, the financial risks. “We almost lost our house on our first business. It was crazy.” He continued, “There’s 1.21 million businesses in Canada, .2% are large, 1.9% of medium size, and 97.9% is us. We run the economy. …We are the ones who make West Nipissing what it is.”
Next up was Mayor Kathleen Thorne Rochon, who addressed the importance of the Chamber as an organization, citing examples from her own life experience, speaking off-the-cuff. “The Chamber of Commerce has played a huge role in my life for the last 20 years and it really has been instrumental in my career development.” Her first job exiting school as a graphic designer was with her local Chamber. “It was a large area, so it was a big Chamber. There was a ton of events and great networking opportunities… I would meet people through the networking opportunities and come with another opportunity and I would change jobs and get a little better pay and a little better experience. I did that for a couple of years. I ended up working for the Niagara Wine Festival. It’s a large festival in southern Ontario, attracting over 10,000 people a day.” From there things moved rapidly; she was exposed to a host of businesses, political figures, participated in policy development, and met a lot of interesting people – including her husband, François “Frank” Rochon, a Sturgeon Falls native.
“The funny thing was, as I was networking and meeting people through Niagara, you would not believe … there are people from Sturgeon Falls everywhere!” She mentioned several locals who migrated south. “Another time we were playing in a golf tournament and the foursome behind us, I could hear them speaking French. And at that time, I had started to learn French so I could be more part of my husband’s family. And I started talking to him…” It turned out the to be her husband’s Sturgeon Falls teen idol, who drove a sports car up and down King Street when Frank was 14-years-old. “The tentacles of Sturgeon Falls and West Nipissing really reach out.” It goes the other way as well. On this evening in Sturgeon Falls she met Jason Baumgartner. “Jason works for Pops Cannabis. Jason was also the catering manager for the Saint Catherine’s Golf and Country Club at the time that I worked for the Niagara Wine Festival, and I used to work with him to coordinate events for our organization… He and his wife have relocated to Lavigne.”
The mayor spoke of how when she moved to Sturgeon Falls and started her own business, she got involved with the Chamber right away, became a member of the board, and then President. “We started the first Feast on the Farm event and it was a really great way for me to try to get involved in my new community. I’m not from here. My husband is. I really wanted to reach out and connect with like-minded people and to be able to use some of those skills and some of the things that I have learned over the years to build our community… As you can see, the Chamber of Commerce really is a string that has run through my life for the last 20 years, and I can’t overestimate the value that has had on me, personally. I can say without a doubt that I don’t believe I would be here tonight addressing you as your mayor without the role that the Chamber has played for me.”
Thorne Rochon spoke about the new council and how she sees every member as thoughtful, engaged and bringing unique skills to the table, but she stressed that what drives a community forward is collaboration. “Nine people sitting at a table in City Hall are not what makes a community great. What makes a community great is all the people who are also getting involved in their individual neighborhoods, whether it’s through a Chamber of Commerce or other organizations, like sports… When we put out our calls for committees, we had more applications than we had spaces for. …We’ve got three members of council who are 29, 30 and 34,” she noted, saying it portends very well for the future of community building.