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Chamber awards include check presentation

Berlin Town Administrator Laura Allen, left, Mayor Gee Williams and Councilman Thom Gulyas receive a check from the Berlin Chamber of Commerce during an installation dinner last Tuesday.

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(Jan. 31, 2019) The Berlin Chamber of Commerce welcomed a new president and board, honored several local people, and handed a $5,000 donation to the Town of Berlin during its annual installation dinner last Tuesday at DiFebo’s Restaurant.

Long-time volunteer and event planner Steve Frene was sworn in as president.

Frene said last Thursday he hoped to bring “optimism, positivity, excitement and enthusiasm for another good year ahead.”

He’s been involved with the chamber for more than two decades, dating back to his days working as a sale manager for local radio stations.

Frene recalled being asked to connect with local chambers of commerce when he was working for WRXS. One night, he heard about a fundraiser near the station and decided to attend.

“Lo and behold, the lovely and freshly divorced Debbie Parker was the chamber president. So, that’s where I met Debbie,” Frene said of his future wife. “We hit it off and I was instantly smitten, of course. And after several years of dating and courtship and all of that, we ended up getting married.

“I remember telling my general manager, ‘Remember when you told me to get involved with the Berlin Chamber? I’m getting married to the president of the Berlin Chamber.’ So, when I get involved, I get involved!” he added with a laugh.

Frene has helped organize events for many years, including the annual Fiddler’s Convention and Jazz & Blues Bash. Debbie also organized many of the events.

“At one point, between Debbie and her daughter running Spring Celebration and Victorian Christmas, and I was running Jazz & Blues and the Fiddler’s Convention, I think the only event we didn’t run as a family was one called Village Fair that we used to have in June,” he said.

“We kind of stepped back for a while and let some other people have some input at the chamber,” Frene continued. “There were a couple of years where we were just good supporters, but we weren’t actually on the board.”

About three years ago, he decided to again become involved.

“I just saw a couple of things … the board of the chamber was so new, no one really had any knowledge of some of the reasons we did things on certain dates and how we did them, and I saw that they kind of needed some help and some guidance of someone who’d been around,” he said. “I got back involved and experienced a whole different thing.”

Frene said the chamber of old was largely volunteer-run and kept its office supplies in a stockroom at Town Center Antiques. Today, the nonprofit has an executive director, Larnet St. Amant, and an assistant director, Jess Hall, as well as an office in the town welcome center.

“Now, under the current configuration, really Larnet and Jess take care of a lot of the day-to-day stuff and I can still focus on the events,” Frene said. “There’s dedicated, paid help.

“I’ve had an influence over the last several years on the board of directors to kind of … preserve the integrity of the events – the dates and the times and the substance – and give some input on that and just some general guidance,” he continued. “I kind of go where I’m needed and do what needs to be done, and just kind of help out.”

Also sworn in at the dinner were Treasurer Brian Roberts and Secretary Cate Nellans, as well as board members Shelly Bruder, Donna Compher, Charles Adams, Michael Queen, Denise Gottloeb, Ivy Wells and Tori Grundman.

Also recognized were Volunteer of the Year Kim Frasier and Artist of the Year Patrick Henry. Additionally, Berlin Economic Development Director Ivy Wells was given the New Idea Award for helping to organize a shoe drive in honor of the late Jesse Turner.

Wells said it was ironic she received the award exactly one year after announcing the campaign: to collect new or gently used shoes for Diakonia using Turner’s winning entry in the annual Berlin Bathtub Races as a collection vessel, placed at the welcome center.

“The idea was to keep Jesse’s legacy alive and the Shoe Box alive by using the tub to collect the shoes,” Wells said. “And the campaign is going really well. We just called them again to collect another full bathtub.”

The Town of Berlin, which offers staff and other assistance for chamber events, was given an oversized $5,000 check as a thank you. Town Administrator Laura Allen said that money would “go to the Main Street program to help offset the cost [of] town’s support.”

Frene said chamber events greatly benefits from town help, and notably from Wells herself.

“We have great support from the town, more so than ever before,” he said. “With Ivy there, we have her support and promotion, and help marketing and planning, and the town really supports us.

“These events cost a lot of money for the town, because all the guys have to hang out for hours and clean up and it’s overtime … and it’s expensive,” he continued. “We took a look at the bank account and how much money the chamber had, and we felt that we were in a position to share some of that surplus money from some of the events and through membership.

“We just felt like we should share some of the revenue and present it in a way to show our support and help the town. And it’s something we hope to continue to do,” Frene said.