By Neil Haggerty and Sam Swatski
Twenty years ago, Sammy Moore became the first full-time executive director of the Chamber of Commerce serving Lexington and Rockbridge County.
At the time, the nonprofit organization had only 125 members. Moore earned a $16,000 annual salary and was the chamber’s only paid employee.
As he approaches his retirement at the end of 2014, the chamber’s sphere now includes Buena Vista, it has more than 500 members and it employs three paid workers. And Moore’s salary is four times what it was when he started.
“He’s been really good in terms of networking and helping grow the organization,” said Brian Brown, Buena Vista’s director of economic development.
For Moore, the Chamber of Commerce has been all about marketing and energizing local businesses. He said the chamber should be the “Red Bull” of the community.
During Moore’s first year as executive director, he was a driving force in launching a food and wine festival to help local eateries and wineries showcase their products at the Lime Kiln outdoor theater site.
The festival has grown into the Rockbridge Beer & Wine Festival, to showcase up-and-coming breweries such as Blue Lab Brewing Company and Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company. It has since moved to the Virginia Horse Center and attracts hundreds of people, who pay a $20 entrance fee.
Moore also helped start the Chamber Benefits Card program. Employees of chamber member businesses can get discounts and perks at other chamber businesses by using the card.
“It was also a ticket to help grow business,” Moore said. “During the first round we gave away about 8,000 benefit cards.”
At Celtic Tides in Downtown Lexington, Chamber Benefits Card holders can receive 10 percent discounts on most merchandise, according to co-owner Mary Jo Morman.
Morman, who has owned the store with her husband for more than nine years, praised another chamber activity started by Moore: “Business After Hours.” The monthly events allow her to network with other local businesses, and have given her ideas to improve her business.
About five years ago, when the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce folded, Moore incorporated the Buena Vista businesses into the Lexington and Rockbridge County chamber.
By incorporating Buena Vista, Brown said, Moore helped unite the businesses in the Rockbridge area.
Bob Huch, president of the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors and vice president of finance at Southern Virginia University, said Moore’s leadership and direction have helped college students learn about the restaurants, shops and services in the area.
Moore visits the local colleges at the beginning of every school year to help new students get acclimated to the community and businesses.
“He’s marketing for all of the local businesses by doing that,” Huch said.
The search for Moore’s successor will begin immediately, Huch said. The chamber will hold two open forums for the membership to “outline the characteristics that they would like to have in the next executive director,” according to a press release.
Huch said the Chamber of Commerce took a hit during the recent recession and membership has leveled off in the past five years.
But he said the business counseling services provided by the chamber are worth the membership dues.
Moore said membership dues haven’t increased in eight years. While dues are based on the number of employees a business employs, he said more than 80 percent of businesses in the chamber pay $125 per year, the lowest dues level.
And Moore has tried to keep the chamber up to speed with the rapid changes in technology.
He has offered guidance to help local businesses market their products online, and he involved the chamber in MyChamberApp, a smart phone app with a directory of local businesses and services. Each year, he offers the app to about 1,300 students at the local colleges.
“Nowadays, I hope everyone has an internet presence,” Moore said. He thinks the chamber should choose a successor who is technologically savvy.
Before the Main Street Lexington program took hold in 2013, Moore was a leader in Lexington’s downtown development initiatives, City Manager Jon Ellestad said.
Stephanie Wilkinson, executive director of the revitalized Main Street Lexington program, said her organization works with the chamber, but she was surprised by Moore’s retirement announcement. She’s hopeful his successor will be strong.
“It’s just amazing if you get the right people in a room together what you can get done,” Wilkinson said.
Moore’s retirement surprised Ellestad as well, who is retiring himself.
But Moore, a 61-year-old Rockbridge area native, says it is the right time to leave. He said he would probably stay in the area and continue to coach the Rockbridge County High School’s girls’ lacrosse team.
“It was just kind of time to move on,” Moore said. “It’s not anything more than I’m looking forward to retirement.”