The Van Buren Chamber of Commerce of today looks drastically different than the chamber of 2007. When Jackie Krutsch came to the organization more than six years ago, she brought with her a vision that she hoped would transform the direction of the chamber and expand its presence in the community.
During a time when many chambers took hard hits from the national recession, Krutsch has managed to help the organization prosper. Her commitment to see Van Buren live up to its fullest potential has had a positive impact on not just the city, but the region, as a whole.
Krutsch assumed the role of executive director in 2007, after spending eight years at Leadership Fort Smith. She approached the job with a philosophy of "if you do business in a community, you should be a member of that community and support business organizations that support you."
Krutsch moved full-steam ahead with a goal to strengthen long-standing and forge new relationships with area businesses, leaders, citizens, schools, and organizations. She immediately began collaborating with local leaders to help map out plans for the region's economic future.
"One of the areas that we were lacking very sorely was in the realm of economic development and the 'go to' person or office," said Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman. “When Jackie became the director of the Chamber, I had someone that stepped up to help in the area of economic development. We have had a great relationship and have also developed a great working relationship with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber and other regional partners. We both will tell you we are not where we need to be but we have come a very long way."
Krutsch has played an important role in several major projects, including the chamber's involvement with the Western Arkansas Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority. Otherwise known as RITA, the authority formed in 2009 with the "broad goal to maximize the use of all forms of transportation — rail, barge, air, interstate — so as to reduce shipping costs and increase service options for regional business and industries."
"We have supported RITA since its conception," said Krutsch. "We work in cooperation with the city and county to assist in RITA's efforts and progress."
In addition to her contributions to the RITA project, Krutsch also serves on the board of the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, which "assists western Arkansas communities with the planning for and development of local and regional programs and projects," through a wide-range of services.
Krutsch knows that any successful long-term growth plan also includes preparations for upcoming generations. For this reason, she has worked with the Van Buren School District to help connect community leaders with today's students.
"Under Jackie’s leadership, the chamber has become involved with public schools in a very proactive fashion," said VBSD Superintendent Dr. Merle Dickerson. "The Chamber sponsors a Friday Lunch with groups of senior level students to connect them with community leaders. The lunches are a popular event with the seniors. They get to have lunch with a successful local business person and interact with him or her as they talk about what it takes to be successful after high school and college. The Chamber also sponsors a banquet at the end of the year for students who have demonstrated responsibility in a number of ways."
Krutsch is pleased by the chamber's renewed focus on education.
"We have a very strong education committee who helps with our Arkansas Scholars Program and the senior business lunches," said Krutsch. "These unique experiences give students the opportunity to interact with today's leaders. They can share about what employers are looking for, how to prepare for the workforce, and even discuss what is proper attire for an interview.”
In an effort to further strengthen chamber relations with the community, Krutsch also opted to bring the existing Leadership Crawford County program under her organization's umbrella in 2011. The group, which was previously ran by a group of committed volunteers, educates and challenges potential leaders to the needs and opportunities in Crawford County, with the goal of increasing their involvement in the community.
"It was a win-win for all," said Krutsch. "Not only did it provide a permanent and secure home for Leadership Crawford County, but it also gave us the opportunity to educate members on the goals of the Chamber and expand our friend-base."
Despite the Chamber's steady progress in the areas of economic development and collaborative partnerships, growing the membership base proved to be a very difficult task.
"We had less than 300 when I started and hovered around the 350 mark for several years," noted Krutsch.
She and her board decided it was a time for a change and began planning a large-scale recruitment. In November 2013, the Chamber hosted a major membership drive, which involved more than 180 volunteers. Participants divided up into teams and combed the community rounding up new members. The project took nearly a year to prepare, but the work was well worth it. The result was a 90% increase in membership, with 290 members signing on during the event.
"We are in a great position now," said Krutsch. "The drive helped us build up human capital, which is key in remaining a proactive chamber."
Though modest about her accomplishments, Krutsch is very proud of the goals the Chamber has been able to achieve in recent years.
"I am most pleased with how the chamber has been able to influence the culture of business leadership in Van Buren," said Krutsch. "In helping them to realize they can be proactive and not reactionary."
Mayor Freeman agrees.
"She and the Board have redefined the direction and the focus of the chamber in a very effective and positive way," noted Freeman.
As part of the its plan to see the organization and city grow, the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce has partnered with The Center for Economic Development from the University of Arkansas, Little Rock Institute for Economic Advancement (IEA) to conduct a comprehensive community assessment. The study will provide the chamber with demographic information, including projected population, income and household values, sales tax capture and leakage data, and other key economic and social information, to help provide the city an accurate snapshot of itself.
"This will direct us in doing some real strategic planning," said Krutsch. "It will assist in determining priorities for the next five plus years."
Despite the obvious impact that Krutsch has had on the community, those close to her will quickly note that she remains humble about her role in all of the progress.
"She is the first to send the success of anything we do to someone other than herself," remarked Janie Simmons, executive assistant at the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce. "She will tell you that any Chamber success is due to the volunteers and staff we have, but I will tell you that without her committed leadership it would not be the strong and vibrant organization that it is today."
Community leaders echo Simmons' thoughts.
"Jackie does not let the grass grow under her feet. She is always planning for the future and at the same time executing the plan for today," said Mayor Freeman. "Although she is not from nor lives in Van Buren, her passion for the community is obvious and very contagious. She is very good at developing and strengthening relationships with our corporate citizens, as well as small business owners and non-profit organizations. Jackie also has the ability to reach out to people and get them involved in activities with passion and enthusiasm.”
Dickerson said he appreciates her focus on building relationships.
“She sees the 'big picture' and she establishes relationships with people in Crawford County, the River Valley, the State Chamber, and local and state government. She knows that it will take all of us to move our community and state forward,” Dickerson said.
Krutsch's dream for the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce is now a reality, with the organization experiencing record growth, and reaping the benefits of new partnerships with surrounding cities and associations. While many of Krutsch's goals for the chamber have come to fruition, she knows her work is far from over.