Wallace bids goodbye to Fairmont Chamber

FAIRMONT – After 18 years at the helm of the Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce, Bob Wallace will be retiring as its president. After notifying his board of directors, Wallace announced his retirement a week ago in an email to Chamber members.

“I’m 72 years old. I can’t work forever,” Wallace laughed. “I just think it’s time for somebody else to have as much fun as I’ve had.”

No official end date has been set. HR Advisors of Fairmont has been charged with finding his replacement, and once that individual is hired, the ubiquitous suit-clad Wallace will offer his expertise through the transition period.

“The community is doing well. Our industrial base is doing well. The downtown and the mall – they’re more full than they’ve been in a long time.

“People need to realize how good it is right now.”

Wallace uses the term “we” – never “I” – when he talks about the Chamber of Commerce and its accomplishments, and he frequently stresses the words “grow” and “change.” He is quick to share any credit or praise with his staff and the community.

“We’ve had phenomenal people to work with here,” he said, citing fellow staffers Callie Austin and Tom Steffes for their innovation and support. “With the competent people who work here, it (presidency) has been easy to do.”

And he offers positive comments for the citizens of Fairmont.

“This community is really fortunate to have a number of people step up. You learn a lot from other people,” Wallace said.

The Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce functions as much more than a retail promoter. It manages a laundry list of duties that, when itemized, totals more than four single-spaced pages of programs and services. From providing administrative services to local non-profit organizations to serving as a bus ticket agent for the Jefferson Lines, the chamber handles multiple duties.

Although he relishes all aspects of his job, Wallace admits to having a few favorites, specifically projects dealing with youth.

The Martin County Youth Foundation is not Chamber-related, but it has been a boon to area non-profit organizations geared to younger citizens.

“Joe Kurtzman and I thought there was a need for a youth foundation in this county,” Wallace said. “We were able to get a $14,000 anonymous donation, and it just continued to grow.”

The Blandin Foundation, a Minnesota-based philanthropic group focused on out-state areas, contributed $250,000 in matching funds, and then an additional $30,000 “so we were able to start making grants immediately,” Wallace said.

That was in the early 2000s, and since then, the Martin County Youth Foundation has contributed more than $300,000 to local groups and boasts a fund balance nearing $900,000.

Another project that pleasantly shocked Wallace involved the effort to re-establish an agricultural department within the Fairmont schools.

“It was unbelievable. We raised $350,000 in 10 weeks,” he said.

“We’ve always had a great working relationship with the ag community. It drives this area. They are not afraid to work.”

Wallace took over the reins of the Chamber in September 1996.

“It’s been a good fit for me,” he said, and he offers simple advice to his successor.

“Just be open to suggestion and change,” he said.