Awards dinner showcases new direction for Portland chamber

Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, at the chamber’s 159th annual awards dinner at the State Theater. An art installation by Maine College of Art senior Rangeley Morton is visible on the left.

It is just past 7 p.m. when Chris Hall, CEO of the organization formerly known as the Portland Regional Chamber (more on that later), announces he is out of things to say.

The crowd of 500 people packed into the State Theater for the chamber’s 159th annual awards dinner respond with applause and laughter. Not because Hall is being sarcastic, but because past awards dinners were known to drag on past 9 p.m. and had earned a reputation for tedium.

But between the new venue, live music, food prepared by chefs from four local restaurants and art from several Maine College of Art students, the Tuesday evening soirée is a far cry from last year’s event, and evidence of the new direction Hall is leading the chamber in his first year as CEO.

“What we wanted to do is show a new evolving face of the chamber,” Hall tells me following the event. “We wanted to be outward looking. We wanted to embrace the arts community. We wanted to bring in our foundation, and you saw some of them on stage, but we also wanted to bring in the new folks, and clearly we accomplished that tonight. I’m really happy about that.”

The “new folks” Hall refers to are the 100 new members the chamber has added in the past year, bringing the current total to 1,300. These new members, Hall says, have brought new energy into the chamber.

These new members, “they’re not your dad’s businesses,” he says. “They’re all these new interesting, niche [businesses].” And, with a line that could be from a recruitment poster, Hall adds, “The people who join the chamber, change the chamber.”

A hint of that change is the chamber’s new partnership with MECA, which is evidenced by paintings from local artists hanging on the walls of the theater, locally hand-crafted pieces of art handed out as the awards, and large installations on the stage made out of industrial plastic by MECA senior Rangeley Morton.

“We haven’t thought about the arts community as businesses,” Hall admits. “Well, they are.”

As part of a new initiative to embrace the Portland region’s art community, the chamber will invite local artists to display their art for sale on the walls of the chamber’s office — “do you know how many people come in that office?” he says — and has pledged to spend $2,000 a year to purchase local art.

“This is to help them as business people, and to recognize them as business people,” he says. He adds that $2,000 may not be a large amount in dollar terms, but it’s a big deal in terms of a shifting focus.

“It helps them as small businesses, and that’s really important because they’re just as important as anybody else’s business,” he says. “We’re trying to incorporate a bigger, broader view of what is the business community.”

Another small, but noteworthy, announcement Hall makes is that the Portland Regional Chamber is officially changing its name to the Portland Regional Chamber … of Commerce.

“Commerce is an old word, but it’s a really cool thing because that’s what makes us prosperous,” Hall says. “And that’s what we want, we want a more prosperous region and we’re going to do that through networks like the one you’re enjoying tonight.”

As it was an awards dinner, several businesses did walk away with some hardware.

The Henri A. Benoit Award for Leadership in the Private Sector went to the founders of the Stars & Stripes Spectacular, Portland’s July 4th holiday event, which includes WEX, the Portland Press Herald, Quirk Chevrolet and the Maine Red Claws.

The Neal. W. Allen Award for Leadership in the Public Sector went to Michael Brennan, Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly 100 years.

And the Robert R. Masterton Award for Leadership in Economic Development went to Fluid Imaging Technologies, a Yarmouth company that manufactures equipment that can photograph microscopic particles suspended in fluid. The company exports its products to 40 countries around the world and employs 40 people.

“Some people may consider Maine at the terminus of the United States or on the fringe of economic development opportunities,” says Kent Peterson, Fluid Imaging’s CEO, during his acceptance speech. “But as you saw in the video” — videos introduced each winner — “we operate in 40 countries around the world now, so I submit to you all that Fluid Imaging is the geographic epicenter of our world market and hopefully other entrepreneurs and business owners will feel the same way.”

I hope so, too.

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Whit Richardson

About Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.