Influencers: Christy Gillenwater

Reimagining the chamber of commerce's role in a thriving community

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Christy Gillenwater poses in the alley behind the chamber offices.
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Christy Gillenwater poses in the alley behind the chamber offices.

After two years at the helm of an organization charged with driving economic development in the region, Christy Gillenwater is clear on what she diplomatically refers to as "the biggest opportunity for our community in the future."

"We must draw more support for our school system," says Gillenwater, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's a duty; it's a call to action."

There are other opportunities, to be sure. Developing a strong talent pipeline to fill the jobs of today, as well as the rapidly evolving jobs of tomorrow. Balancing the need to preserve Chattanooga's mid-size-city charms with a hard push to attract new ideas and people to the area. Gathering a diverse groups of stakeholders in Chattanooga's success around a shared vision for the city's future. Ensuring individuals and families all have a shot at economic prosperity.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Chamber of Commerce President and DE) Christy Gillenwater speaks during a visit to the Times Free Press.

Underpinning all of that, though, is a strong public education system, and the need to support schools will only get more urgent as the region's great-place reputation grows, she adds.

"A lot of people moving here have higher expectations of our school systems," she says.

Gillenwater is the first woman to head the Chamber, and she comes to the role with a career in leading economic development. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Gillenwater was most recently president of the chamber in Evansville, Indiana. She also served eight years as CEO of the Greater Bloomington Chamber. Just months before she arrived to lead the Chattanooga chamber, Gillenwater was named Chamber Executive for 2017 in Indiana.

"Chattanooga's brand was really on the upswing with entrepreneurship and outdoor activities," she says. "We really wanted a tremendous place to raise our boys."

The past three presidents of the Chattanooga Chamber - Bill Kilbride, Ron Harr and Tom Ed Wilson - were Chattanooga business executives who took on the job after careers with local companies.

As the challenges communities face in creating thriving economies for everyone have evolved, the role of chambers everywhere has changed, Gillenwater says.

"We have to stay fresh and relevant," she says of the 130-year-old organization. "What it takes to be a thriving city has changed."

Through surveys and workshops, more than 5,000 people contributed to a Chamber-led plan called Velocity 2040, a 20-year vision of what the community can and should be. The overarching theme that came from that work, Gillenwater says, is that resources need to go to investing in people.

"We've built a great place," she says. "We need to focus on people."

From cleaning the air to redeveloping the waterfront to launching game-changing high-speed internet to re-imagining the South Side and the North Shore, the city has an impressive record of reinvention, she says. As a relative newcomer, Gillenwater sees immense potential for growth of both the business landscape and the economic prosperity of people and families, she says.

"This is a confident community, but we're not always as visionary as we could be," she says. "Those of us who didn't live here when the doubt was present, we see a jewel. The limitations are only in our minds. We're dreaming bigger."

Christy Gillenwater

Job: President and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of CommerceInfluence: Leading a collaborative effort to spur economic development in the region through a focus on talent development and investing in people.Just for fun: Gillenwater likes to spend her down time boating, cycling and swimming with her husband and two young sons, who are 4 and 9.

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