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Chamber hires two directors with long ties to Morris area

Rhoda Smith and Carolyne Peterson plan to focus on tourism and growth for all Stevens County in their new roles at the Chamber.

Once they finish organizing Prairie Pioneer Days, Rhoda Smith and Carolyn Peterson, the two new directors of the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce plan to focus on tourism, membership, and economic growth across all of Stevens County.

Smith officially took the reins as administrative director of the Chamber at the beginning of June, and was joined by Peterson as tourism and membership director at the end of the month.

This is the first time the chamber will be operating with two directors, but it's a relationship both Smith and Peterson think will be beneficial.

"If we do this well, we will be bigger than the two of us," said Smith.

As administrative director, Smith will work on community and leadership development projects and administrative tasks like the Chamber website, Facebook page and newsletter. In her role as tourism and membership director, Peterson will also work on events, fundraising and Prairie Pioneer Days.

"We both have a very strong background in the community of Morris and the history of Morris - I think that will be beneficial," said Peterson.

For Smith, moving to the Chamber will be a transition from more then 20 years of work experience in higher education. Before starting at the Chamber in June, Smith served as Vice President of Student Affairs at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.

Coming to the Chamber offered Smith the chance to live and work in her home community. Smith was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Morris, worked for the newspaper, and eventually returned to the area with her family in 2000.

Peterson is a recognizable name in the chamber office. She first worked with the chamber in 1996 as an administrative staff person, then served as director from 1999 until 2009. Peterson has also with Stevens Forward since 2007 and will continue to serve as coordinator for that group.

Peterson is familiar with the origins of the area tourism initiative. As director of the Chamber, Peterson was an advocate for implementing the lodging tax - a three percent tax on the gross receipts of hotels and motels in Morris - in 2009. Proceeds from the tax, about $28,000 each year, have since been used to support local events like Prairie Pioneer Days. Most recently, the lodging tax was used to fund work with HBH Consultants, who developed a logo and communications plan for tourist activities in the area.

"I was excited to get back and have this opportunity, now that we do have some resources available to provide those things - I think it'll be a great addition to the work the Chamber is already doing," said Peterson.

Although each woman has clear areas they're tasked with working on, both see many areas of collaboration and overlap as they move forward with the Chamber's goals.

Tourism, in particular, is a focus area that will stretch across the community and across their respective Chamber roles. Although the tourism initiative has been started, it will need a stronger focus to get moving and become better connected to the broader strategic plans for the Chamber, said Smith.

"We certainly need to look at [the strategic] plan and make sure, as we're moving things forward, that we're all going in a common direction," said Smith. "We want to make sure we have lots of initiatives, but that they all go back to supporting Stevens County and the Morris area."

Another focus area for Peterson will be membership growth. This year, the Chamber will be working to more fully incorporate the nonprofits in the Stevens County area. Resource Connections, a collaboration of community nonprofits, was recently added as a standing committee of the Chamber.

"There's a large area, between the nonprofits and the tourism, that we really haven't even tapped into yet as things we can promote through the Chamber," said Peterson.

Although both recognize challenges moving forward, Smith and Peterson are also quick to point out that the challenges Morris faces - be it growing jobs or promoting tourism - are also opportunities.

"Maybe the challenge is in changing how we think about this place that we call home, and recognizing that the challenges are the opportunities - that the things that we see everyday really are unique and wonderful and things that people don't get to experience everywhere," said Smith.