Roger Adams retires after nearly four decades of service to Windham Chamber of Commerce

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Tue., Jan. 28, 2014
Roger Adams is retiring from the Windham Chamber of Commerce after more than 38 years of service. Contributed photo. - Contributed Photo

Recently, the Chamber of Commerce, Inc., Windham Region recognized the retirement of long-time president Roger Adams. With nearly four decades of involvement in the 127-year-old organization, “nearly one third of the Chamber’s history has been under Roger’s leadership,” said current president Diane Nadeau.

Adams exhibited many strengths during his tenure, said Nadeau, among them a very good working relationship with the legislature at the state and local level. In his time, the Chamber grew from a businessman’s organization into a regional organization focused on many issues such as regional economic development and tourism, said Nadeau. Adams was responsible for ushering the Chamber into the digital age, said Nadeau, first via a website, then social media sources. He was also the president of the Connecticut Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. “That was quite a distinction,” said Nadeau.

The Windham Chamber started in 1887, said Adams. In the early years, through the '60s and early '70s, “It was focused largely on downtown retail,” he said. “It was much different than it has been in recent years.”

The 1974 opening of the Eastbrook Mall “really had a large impact on downtown retail,” said Adams. The opening preceded the slow shutting down of many of the 30 to 40 active retail locations that had dominated downtown Willimantic. Hardware stores, clothing stores, shoe stores and jewelry stores began to disappear, a situation that intensified with the opening of big box stores. Events that the Chamber had previously been involved with — such as downtown Santa and sidewalk sales — no longer had the retail presence to support them.

“We started to change our focus to trying to protect industrial jobs,” said Adams. The loss of the American Thread Company between 1983 and 1985 represented the end of the large industrial employers in the area. Remaining employers such as General Cable and United Abrasives employ between 300 and 350 workers, said Adams, as opposed to the larger manufacturers of the mid-'70s.

As private-sector jobs disappeared, UConn, Eastern Connecticut State University and the Mansfield Training School (before its closure) provided employment relief to the area. More recent developments like the Arts at the Capital Theatre magnet school and the under-construction Our Piece of the Pie School to be located in the old YMCA building, “are a big step in the right direction,” said Adams.

Also important economic drivers are local entrepreneurs who have decided to stick around and invest in the area, said Adams, citing Cafemantic, which has has expanded from a coffee shop to a three-meal-a-day sit-down format since its opening.

With three-, four- and five-employee businesses representing the average size of new business joining the Chamber, providing education and mentoring support to small businesses is an important area of focus currently, said Adams.

Asked about his proudest accomplishment during his nearly four decades with the Chamber, Adams cited the trust developed between the organization and local officials. “Local officials view the Chamber as a place to go to understand laws, new taxes, new roads, zoning changes,” said Adams. “They generally have come to rely on us.” He also cited close relationships with Quinebaug Valley Community College, UConn and Eastern. “They are our economic engine now,” he said. If one of the schools faces a budget cut, “we want to know about it so that we can address it at the state level,” he said.

Maintaining a close working relationship with local and state legislators is important going forward, said Adams. “There aren’t many with a private business background,” he said. The more the Chamber is able to get legislators together with business owners and employers, “the better off everyone will be,” said Adams.

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