MERIDEN — Rosanne Ford had only been on the job for a month when COVID-19 entered the U.S. and shuttered schools, gatherings, and upended the business community.
Ford had been acting president of the Midstate Chamber of Commerce since former president Sean Moore retired in 2019, and the board officially handed her the reins in January 2020. When Gov. Lamont gave the executive order shutting down non-essential businesses, Ford was stymied. She could no longer go out and touch base with new or existing members, business after hours and grand openings had to be cancelled, and the chamber’s annual banquet and awards night, which draws hundreds, was a no-go.
“I was terrified because we’re an organization and we are in the business of connecting people and we can’t do any of that,” Ford said. “I immediately thought of all our members and asked ‘how are they going to get through this?’ I wondered how are we going to get new members. All of these scary things were going through my mind and keeping me up a bit.”
Fortunately her 20 years working for the chamber, including 15 as vice-president, helped her maintain focus and direction. She was grateful that Moore had invited her to sit in on administrative and budgeting sessions and establish a platform she could operate from.
“He was here about 20 years as well,” Ford said. “He built the chamber in those 20 years, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to work with him on most of everything. He laid some great ground work.”
Ford scaled back expenses and navigated the myriad of loans and grants available to small and medium sized businesses that needed help. Committee meetings were held via Zoom and members stayed in touch. Her first priority was making sure the business community had all the information it needed to fill out a Paycheck Protection Program Loan application and other resources from the city and the Small Business Administration.
“The PPP was huge,” she said. “We created a COVID resource page with information from the SBA and funding sources and city grants for small businesses. It meant a great deal to a lot of them in terms of getting them caught up on a lot of bills. In light of what they’re facing the business community as a whole has been very creative.”
Ford and Thomas Welsh, president of the Meriden Economic Development Corp., screened applications for the city programs. Ford also counseled small and medium-sized business owners on the need to establish a relationship with a banker, hire a bookkeeper and have all their state taxes and other requirements up to date so they would be eligible.
As she counseled others, Ford was also learning about the programs the Midstate Chamber was be eligible for. The chamber applied and received a PPP loan that was later forgiven. It helped the independent non-profit. Ford has since increased staff hours and hired a digital marketing intern.
The chamber has always maintained partnerships with non-profits, the city, and MEDCO, but the partnerships became more critical during the past year. In addition to the chamber’s close relationship with MEDCO, Ford has also worked on a study of Route 5 with the South Central Region Council of Governments. The chamber also recently celebrated its one-year alliance with the Hamden Chamber of Commerce. This year, the chamber began offering health insurance programs to members.
It was during a meeting of the chamber’s Health and Wellness Committee that Ford realized that even health care workers had questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.
“I said ‘if they have questions about it, I bet a lot more people have questions,’” Ford said.
Getting answers to the community resulted in the largest collaboration effort to date. The Midstate Chamber partnered with the United Way of Meriden-Wallingford, the Spanish Community of Wallingford, the Record-Journal, and the state Department of Public Health to get answers to the public from health experts with Hartford HealthCare and Community Health Center Inc.
“That collaboration was huge,” she said. “It was our largest, broadest audience.”
The chamber has also partnered with the city on a shared work study that surveyed 1,200 businesses on the city’s potential need for shared work space. A hybrid forum on the proposal will be on Zoom and at the Meriden Public Library on April 28.
One year later, the chamber’s annual banquet was cancelled but there are plans for a hybrid annual meeting and officer election on May 12. People can choose to attend the meeting at Il Monticello or participate via Zoom. The chamber’s annual golf tournament is still scheduled for June 16, and plans for the chamber’s 125th anniversary at the Aqua Turf are scheduled for Sept. 18. Plans are tentative because no one knows which way the pandemic may turn.
“We still have to remain somewhat flexible,” Ford said. “We still have to be able to maneuver in another direction.”
The chamber did lose some members during the pandemic but with more staff in the office and more people getting vaccinated, Ford can resume building membership. Her four-year degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from the University of New Haven and her experience in tourism with the Essex Steam Train helped her get her first chamber job as a membership services coordinator. Today, she views the chamber as a family.
“I love it,” Ford said. “I love what I do. It’s the human interaction and getting to know new businesses coming in and informing people about what the chamber can do for them and making sure they have the information they need.”
The chamber fared well during the pandemic, said Dan Quesnel, who served his first year as chairman of the Board of Directors.
“Because of her leadership we did ok,” Quesnel said. “We’re in pretty good shape. Rosanne has been with the chamber 20 years. She really helped shepard us through. She actively went out and sought assistance, cut back on expenses. There was no panic. Honestly, she really helped me get through it as well.”