FARMINGTON – Returning from a recent trip, Jamie Church spent a day driving around Farmington dropping off 20,000 free reusable masks to schools, businesses and the hospital.
As the president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce, it was not something Church saw herself doing during her second year in the position. But the coronavirus has shaken up many of those expectations.
The face coverings were part of a state program that received 100,000 masks and asked local chambers of commerce to distribute them within their communities.
Church, who had been on the chamber’s board of directors for five years, stepped into the role as president and CEO in January 2019.
“We’re trying to work to diversify the economy and bring in a group of people who we maybe weren’t on the radar for, to promote all those pieces of economic development,” she said.
Before joining the chamber, Church, who is from Durango and attended Fort Lewis College, was working in philanthropy and fundraising with a Farmington nonprofit for 12 years. She said that experience helped her connect and get to know people throughout the community.
But Church said she has always “had a heart for business.”
Growing up in Durango, she watched her father manage his own business, Southwest Camera Repair. He started the businesses in a bedroom in their family home and eventually opened an office in the West Building in downtown Durango. Church watched through the highs and lows of owning a business.
“It impacted me so much because I understand the sacrifices that business owners make, supporting their families, their employees, supporting the local nonprofits, baseball teams, soccer teams and the Boys and Girls Club,” she said. “Small businesses are the absolute backbone of a community.”
Church said her father, who died from a heart attack in his shop, invested a lot into his business and his community. She said it is one of the reasons she is so passionate about supporting local.
“Watching what some of the businesses have gone through the last few months has been heartbreaking,” Church said. “They’ve done everything right, and they’ve had to shut their doors. It’s extremely challenging and emotional for me, too.”
She’s now channeling her energy and passion into helping local businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 responseChurch said a lot of the in-person work of the chamber – which was focused on building community and connections – has shifted. Before the coronavirus hit, the chamber was organizing in-person networking events.
“We had to step back and see what could we do for our members and how could we continue doing that during COVID,” she said.
In the early days of the virus and rapidly shifting public health policies from the governor’s office, the chamber focused on being an outlet for information and pointing business owners to resources available like the Paycheck Protection Program.
“We tried to become one of the reliable places people could go to for information,” Church said.
Church sees networking as a key component in growing businesses, and the chamber as a tool to connect people in the community to facilitate that growth.
“Business relationships start with personal relationships,” she said. “You’re more likely to do business with someone you have a personal relationship with.”
And when networking is no longer an option, Church said the chamber has increased its advocacy work. She has been doing a lot of advocating to state and local officials in the past few months. While it usually takes place behind the scenes at any chamber, Church said advocacy has taken on a larger importance during the pandemic.
“Networking is important, but it’s not everything,” she said. “I learned in the last three months, even if I can’t do networking events, I can share information with chamber members and advocate throughout the state.”
Church has also embraced a touch of creativity to inspire people to shop local and help businesses get back on their feet. The Farmington Chamber of Commerce has been promoting a Back to Business Bingo game, encouraging people to visit the stores on the bingo cards to be entered into raffles.
“It’s a way to say, ‘Hey, these businesses are open again,’” Church said. “We can’t do business happy hours but this is a fun thing to do through the rest of the summer.”
Church said that after her father’s death, she learned he was on the verge of losing his business.
“Gosh, if I could go back and advocate for my dad and help his business,” she said. “My job is to be an advocate for every business that’s a chamber member because I would have championed his business if I could.”