ROCHELLE — Thursday, Aug. 4 will mark Tricia Herrera’s two-year anniversary since being named executive director of the Rochelle Chamber of Commerce.
Herrera spoke to the News-Leader last week and detailed changes at the chamber since 2020, what it was like to start her new position amid the COVID-19 pandemic and spoke on the state of the Rochelle business community.
Chamber changes since 2020 started with moving its office downtown to a new location at 501 W. 6th Ave.
“We moved downtown, that's kind of the heart of the city,” Herrera said. “We wanted to be here where we can walk to a lot of our retailers or see people on the street and answer their questions and talk about ideas. We're very big on collaborations. We can reach more people if we do that.”
New collaborations have included a kickball tournament with the Flagg Rochelle Community Park District to benefit the chamber’s scholarship fund and the park district’s ENGAGE program. The chamber also started a Community Cash program with the City of Rochelle and the Office of Mayor John Bearrows where a local currency can be bought for a one-to-one dollar ratio and redeemed at participating local businesses to encourage shopping locally.
A Lawn of the Week program has been started by the chamber and Rochelle Ace Hardware. The chamber also conducts its Merry & Bright decorating contest during the holiday season.
“Those are all kinds of community events,” Herrera said. “That's very important for us to kind of establish that focus of the chamber. When I was growing up, if you moved to a new community or wanted to know about something new, you called the chamber of commerce. That was kind of like the directory in that time. That's kind of what I wanted us to get back to."
Herrera called her position at the chamber her “dream job.” She served on the chamber board for eight years prior to becoming executive director, which helped her to be prepared, especially to start at the beginning of the pandemic.
“That was a little crazy, but it kind of helped me in establishing my focus,” Herrera said. “When you take a new job, you always want to put your stamp on it. And my stamp has always been that I love all businesses, but small business has always been what's dear to my heart. And especially in the community that I grew up in. That had to be a big focus during the pandemic. How do we keep these businesses going and open and functioning as part of Rochelle?”
The chamber relies on membership dues and fundraising to run its programs to help local businesses. Fundraising became an issue during COVID-19 when people were unable to gather, Herrera said. She said it was a “fine line” to try to help businesses while also needing local dollars to keep the chamber financially able to do so.
“I think we navigated it really well,” Herrera said. “I think we were conscious of how we did it and what we asked for and were more streamlined on what we definitely needed to continue our programs. One of the things that was really impressive to me was that some of the industries and banks and the city continued to help us. They still stepped up and sponsored things and asked how they could help. I think that's a small town thing and we were very fortunate for that.”
Herrera said only 1-2 businesses in Rochelle had to close due to the effects of the pandemic. She credited the City of Rochelle for a lot of that outcome for its efforts including the Rochelle Municipal Utilities Shop Local program and doing things like helping restaurants with outdoor seating when state mandates required it.
Herrera called the state of the Rochelle business community “excellent.” She said the city is very fortunate to have so much industry, and industry that is “community-involved.”
“You'll see staff from our industries out working in the community and volunteering,” Herrera said. “We have several industries that send the chamber volunteers and asks how they can help. I think that trickles down to small businesses because they see that happening. Those industries are very focused on shopping locally and giving back to Rochelle.”
A number of ribbon cuttings have been held over Herrera’s time as executive director for new businesses and members. She’s enjoyed seeing people starting businesses, especially younger entrepreneurs.
“To celebrate with a new business, we did a ribbon cutting recently and the business owner sent me a message and said it was the best day of their life,” Herrera said. “To me, that was so exciting. Not all days are going to be like that, but to have that day and start off and see that community support is always exciting to me.”
The chamber’s membership numbers are at an all-time high, Herrera said, and are currently just short of 300. It has a 96 percent retention rate for members, and to her that means Rochelle businesses are seeing value in the chamber’s services.
“I feel like every day when we come into the chamber office, our goal is to help our members and businesses,” Herrera said. “We are helping them every day. We're just really proud of the changes and the growth we've made. Growth is the biggest thing. I'm just really proud of this organization, our members and our board of directors.”