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Chamber of Commerce searching for new leader again as businesses struggle with economic uncertainty

A row of businesses on Beacon Street near Coolidge Corner. Photo by Sam Mintz
February 20, 2024  Updated March 6, 2024 at 1:54 p.m.

The Brookline Chamber of Commerce is searching for a new leader, as businesses in town face a challenging adjustment to the post-pandemic economic reality.

The chamber’s executive director Lisa Leger departed in late December, just nine months after starting the job.

It was a “mutual decision” between Leger and the board, according to David Gladstone, a Brookline Bank executive who is the chamber’s board chair. Leger, who has taken an interim position at the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, declined to comment.

“There’s a very specific set of skills in order for the chamber and the leadership and the board to be effective with small business,” said Gladstone. “Basically, what we found is that people who have business experience tend to do extremely well.”

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Lisa Wisel, who is a co-owner of the gift shop Wild Goose Chase and co-chairs the chamber’s program committee, said the leadership transition has been difficult since Debbie Miller, who served as its director for more than seven years, departed in January 2023.

“We sort of went backwards,” she said. “I think the person we hire next needs to be very proactive in a lot of areas.”

The business climate in Brookline looks very different now than it did pre-Covid.

Foot traffic to businesses in Brookline has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, Gladstone said, and there are still many empty storefronts across town. Plus, inflation rates have made it challenging for businesses to grow.

“A lot of customers were trained during Covid to order everything online,” said Gladstone. “If you talk to small businesses and restaurants, that state of mind still exists to an extent.”

Steven Peljovich, the owner of Michael’s Deli in Coolidge Corner, said that in-person visits to his restaurant are still down about 25% from before the pandemic, while his food costs are as much as three or four times higher. He said he sometimes now asks a question he never would have asked before Covid: “Is my business going to be around in five years?”

“We’re still struggling,” he said. “Even though it seems like the pandemic in the grand scheme of things is over, we’re still facing supply chain issues, the cost of goods have skyrocketed, and foot traffic is down.”

During the pandemic, the chamber secured grants, like federal ARPA funds to pay restaurants to make and donate meals to the Brookline Food Pantry.

Michael’s Deli was part of that program. “It helped me maintain my payroll, my rent payments, all sorts of things. And it benefited the community,” said Peljovich.

The chamber also worked with Boston University to run a 12-week program teaching small business owners how to create an internet presence and run their businesses online. But there’s much more work to be done, said Gladstone, including returning to the face-to-face events that the chamber is known for.

“Before Covid we did lots of networking events, which have pretty much stopped,” said Wisel. “People would get together after work, and visit a business which would host. I’m hoping they’ll come back. I think that’s a really good way to bring everything together.”

Creating networking opportunities is one of the three main categories of work for a local chamber, said Greg Reibman, who leads the Charles River Regional Chamber, which covers Newton, Needham, Watertown and Wellesley. The other two are helping businesses market themselves and advocating with local governmental bodies for policies that help businesses.

“Brookline is such a vibrant community but the businesses there have the same challenge that businesses everywhere do,” Reibman said. “There needs to be a voice at the table in every community that’s going to make sure that when decisions are made at every level, the public understands from a business perspective what it’s like to operate and live.”

The Brookline chamber will be working over the next few months to narrow its search for a new director.

“I think the chamber should continue to make the powers that be aware that small independent businesses are not out of the woods,” said Peljovich.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified David Gladstone’s role at the Chamber. He is the chair of the board, not the president.