By Timi Eckes
When Dana DeMet succeeded Lara Reed Barbour as executive director of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce in early 2014, he knew what he wanted to accomplish.
“The main thing I wanted to do was follow a lot of the things my predecessor had set up,” he says. “I knew my first year or so would be learning the job, maintaining the initiatives she began.” One of those initiatives was a major new event that celebrated Rhinelander’s logging heritage, scheduled for June of last year. The Wisconsin Department of Tourism had awarded a $10,000 Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) grant to help the chamber promote the project. When he first sat down in the executive director’s chair, DeMet had only about three months to finish the project Reed had started.
He pulled it off. The first annual Boom Lake Log Jam was a resounding success. It was so successful, in fact, that the Department of Tourism awarded a $20,000 JEM grant to help promote this year’s Log Jam, slated for June 19-21, statewide.
DeMet’s agenda, however, included more than continuing his predecessor’s initiatives. For example, he wanted to make sure the chamber got through 2014 in stable financial shape. For an organization that depends on donations and work from volunteers, that can be a challenge – but his goal was realized, says the Rhinelander area native, who previously worked as business manager at a Chicago web development firm. “A lot of what I learned in terms of business operation is what I use here,” he says.
Since he began working at the chamber, DeMet’s business experience and technical knowledge have contributed to successful efforts to launch a Hodag game app and to improve the chamber’s marketing and communication abilities.
DeMet, who graduated from Rhinelander High School in 2004, has plenty of life experience that he draws on for his current job. After he earned a degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and before he worked for the web development firm in Chicago, he embarked on a two-year commitment to Teach For America (TFA). TFA is a nonprofit dedicated to ending education inequity and the organization recruits a diverse range of people to teach in low income communities. DeMet taught eighth grade English and math in North Carolina and recalls that he learned a lot quickly – “Organizational leadership and just a work ethic,” he says with a laugh. He also honed his ability to work with a diverse group of people. It would become valuable experience for his job as the chamber’s executive director.
Cooperation among different groups is needed to strengthen communities, something DeMet and many others recognize. Rhinelander, he notes, faces challenges that are common among communities everywhere, particularly in rural areas, such as an aging population that’s not being replaced currently by a younger workforce; employers facing higher turnover rates in coming years; and a shortage of middle income housing options, to name a few.
“I think a big part of what could make Rhinelander attractive to younger families is building on a higher quality of life,” DeMet says. A greater variety of professional jobs and services would attract younger families to a community that’s safe, is a good place to raise a family and has a lower cost of living than many other areas.
“We have that strong sense of community that makes people feel comfortable here,” DeMet notes, and cites additional advantages, like a dedicated work force and major highways that connect the Northwoods to the region’s urban areas. There’s also this area’s natural beauty – “That’s always a strength for us.”
To help attract new businesses and to encourage young families to take up residence here, it’s necessary to promote this area as a place that offers a high quality of life all year long. As part of that effort, the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce is working to establish a 20-year shared strategic plan in conjunction with the city, and private and public organizations.
“The city of Rhinelander, by state statute, is required to have a comprehensive plan that’s updated every five years,” DeMet explains. Other organizations, such as schools and civic groups, also have their own strategic plans. “I realized maybe what Rhinelander was lacking was a shared vision of all these groups, a shared umbrella plan that all groups can work toward.” The chamber began working on the plan with businesses and other parties last August. “Everyone really liked the idea,” he says, noting that the plan is still in progress.
Making the community a more attractive place to live also involves acquiring revenue. One way to gain extra funding would be the proposed premier resort area tax, which would add a half-percent sales tax onto tourism-related purchases. The money would be put toward infrastructure projects in Rhinelander. “The city is very adamant that it’s a positive for our area,” DeMet says. “To try to capture some of that funding, a lot of municipalities would turn to something like this.” At this writing, the state legislature’s joint finance committee had passed the proposal; the state assembly and senate still needed to pass it.
There are other issues facing the community, among them the dissolution of Rhinelander’s Business Improvement District in April. However, Downtown Rhinelander Inc., an organization that’s separate from the chamber and of which DeMet is an ex officio member, is continuing its efforts to revitalize the downtown area. “Downtown is important, not just for the downtown businesses, but also for the character of the Rhinelander area,” he says.
In addition to attracting people and new businesses to Rhinelander, drawing new members to the chamber – and keeping them there – is part of DeMet’s job. Membership in the chamber, he says, is “currently sitting at around 375 members.” The chamber has a low droppage rate. “I always talk about two types of membership. New businesses will join because they’re interested in the promotional capabilities for their businesses. Established businesses see the work the chamber and doing and they support it.” Still others, he adds, support the chamber with their membership because they know the organization supports the community.
The chamber’s job is to advocate for its members, regardless of why they join. “We want to always provide meaningful benefits for our membership,” DeMet says. Among those benefits are promotion of the area (and therefore the area’s businesses), drawing people to this area and acting as a spokesperson, so to speak, for the community.
“My biggest wish is that people would come to us sooner and more often,” DeMet says. “People can use us to reach a broader audience. We might be able to help in ways they don’t realize. We’ve got community groups that are doing fun things. If we can put that in a newsletter that goes to a few thousand people, that helps.
“The chamber can be as big a part of your business or organization as you want it to be,” he continues. “Our actions, promotions and business advocacy are helping the community to be a stronger one.”