20 Questions: Lewis County native grows chamber strength and membership

CEO and President of the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce Kristen Aucter, poses for a portrait at her desk in the Chamber’s Lowville office.

Kristen Aucter, CEO and President of the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, has a deep passion for the people, businesses and potential for new business development in Lewis County.

NNYB: You earned a degree in travel and tourism from Paul Smith’s College. How do you feel this prepared and provided you with the skills that you use each day at the Lewis County Chamber?

AUCTER: Well, I have to be honest. When I went to Paul Smith’s I had dreams of living in an exotic, blue-green water, island paradise. For a long time, I felt that my time there had been a bad choice and that I had spent all of this time and money on a dream that was unrealistic. With that being said, Paul Smiths College (PSC) opened my eyes to all of the diversity our world has to offer and opportunities that I had not even remotely thought possible. I’d say that the most valuable skill I learned from PSC was the ability to look deeper into a situation and realize there is more beneath the surface. A professor showed us an image of an iceberg and told us that wherever we are and whatever we are doing we had better believe there was more happening behind the scenes. Both good and bad. And that to understand it, in its entirety, we needed to see the whole thing. That has resonated with me a long time and when I got to the Lewis County Chamber I walked in with my eyes wide open. Not only in regards to the Chamber but for the businesses that I planned on assisting as well.

NNYB: You worked for many years at Lewis County Opportunities, Inc., where you combated poverty which you have stated in interviews is correlated with the lack of job opportunities. How has this correlation led you to create new initiatives or programs through the chamber to change this?

AUCTER: We have some great ideas coming in the future in regards to programming at the Chamber but I’d say our biggest effort thus far has been our collaborative efforts with Ryan Piche, economic development, Lewis County Planning, Cornell Cooperative Extension and recreation, forestry and parks and Deptartment of Social Services to identify the areas in the county that need assistance. We meet one to two times a month and identify areas where we might be able to work together to make things better for the residents and businesses of the county and offer our support to one another in upcoming projects.

NNYB: What drew you to apply for the position of CEO and President of the Lewis County Chamber?

AUCTER: While I was part of the Leadership Academy one of the big pushes that particular year was the importance of joining boards and I was made aware of a position on the Chamber of Commerce board. I joined in January of 2016, and when the previous director announced her retirement, I was intrigued at the possibility of using both my degree as well as the knowledge about the county I had acquired from opportunities and the leadership academy to be a change agent in the county. What some people don’t realize is that our chamber is not just the Chamber of Commerce but also the tourism promotion agency for all of Lewis County. In many other areas these hats are worn by separate agencies so I was excited about the challenge of balancing the two and enhancing what others had already built as a foundation.

NNYB: What are some of the strengths that you feel Lewis Count holds for potential small business development?

AUCTER: I think people in Lewis County are thrilled when they hear about small business development in the county. While a lot of us living here appreciate living a more simplistic lifestyle, that isn’t to say that we don’t miss some of the amenities that people have living in larger areas.  I’d also say that any new business who is willing to offer something out of the norm stands a greater chance at succeeding if they have done their due diligence in identifying their target population and the best location for that particular business. I also feel like Lewis County at its core is a very welcoming community. People will help one another because it is the right thing to do, not because they are getting something out of it.

NNYB: What are some of the weaknesses?

AUCTER: Lewis County as a whole has stayed in a very traditional and comfortable place for a long time. The danger of that comfort zone is that we get complacent in what new businesses offer. And while we might be content with what we have, there are many more diverse offerings that new businesses can bring to the area. I think the key to their success is to really go above and beyond traditional marketing strategies, get creative and educate the community that new products and services will only add to the comfort of residents and businesses alike.

NNYB: What are some ways, in your opinion, that Lewis County could enhance small business development and creation?

AUCTER: I think increasing the diversity in what we offer would go not only a long way in enhancing small business development but also increasing the quality of life for people who are here. To be honest, growing up I wanted to get away. I wanted to be in a place where I could experience new things and meet new people. Thankfully I saw the error of my ways and came back to Lewis County, but we lose creative, talented, educated youth every year because they don’t see the benefits of living and working here. If the community as a whole could support new businesses when they open and encourage the entrepreneurs who are brainstorming new ideas for businesses the butterfly effect from that support could resonate for generations.

NNYB: What resources does the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce have for individuals interested in starting their own small business?

AUCTER: Within the Chamber we try to assist many new businesses with as much promoting of their openings, events and business promotions as possible. Whether it be on social media, our monthly newsletter or sending their information out in an e-mail blast we try to make sure everyone knows they are there. In regards to small business support we have started having low-cost classes at the chamber for our members to assist with things like Quickbooks, and compliance regulations. In the near future, we will be collaborating Lewis County Economic Development, the Women’s Business Center of New York State and the North Country Procurement Technical Assistance Center to provide a variety of sessions on different marketing strategies that businesses can use. Last year was our first year participating in Small Business Saturday and we plan on continuing that this year with a Welcome Center set up at the Chamber on November 24th. We will have tote bags and other promotional items to go along with the list of local businesses who are open and excited for the day.

NNYB: In what ways can Lewis County increase tourism to support local small businesses?

AUCTER: Our outdoor recreation trails (ATVing and snowmobiling) might not be a favorite for everyone but the people coming to ride our trails keep many of our businesses open year-round. The money spent by tourists, whether they are here for the day or a whole weekend, is funneled into our economy at a great benefit to us. Recently I received a survey on traveler spending and in 2017 tourists spent $44 million in Lewis County alone and I don’t see why we can’t continue to increase that number. I could probably go on with this topic for awhile but I think if at the community level we support and welcome the tourists coming here and appreciate them for what they provide to our community.

NNYB: What is one thing that has surprised you about the Lewis County small business sector?

AUCTER: I would say that the most surprising thing I have found is that for the most part  businesses really do support one another. Even competitors reach out to one another with questions, concerns and to share their successes. The feeling of community is amazing and it’s a joy to be a part of.

NNYB: What can the county do to promote Lewis County as a good place to live and start a business?

AUCTER: I definitely think it is always a challenge introducing new people to an area. Ideally, I think the best course of action is to point out all of the benefits of living and starting a business in a smaller community. While it is frustrating for some, Lewis County does move at a slower and much more relaxed pace. Anyone who I have talked to that has come from a bigger city notes this as one of their favorite things about doing business here. They have a chance to know their customers and build mutually beneficial relationships. These relationships translate into a familiarity that only builds over the years. Your customers become your friends. They know you. They know your family. And that’s how they treat you.

NNYB: How is Lewis County different than its surrounding counties?

AUCTER: I feel like Lewis County is a very tight-knit community. Whether that is due to the traditions that we keep or our ability to slow down and watch the corn grow. I’m not oblivious to the stereotypes that have been attributed to those of us from here, but I also know that – as with all stereotypes – they don’t define who we really are. When I worked in Jefferson County and told them I was from Lewis County I got the expected comments that I had always heard. But I also heard from one of my supervisors “Good, any employee I’ve had from Lewis County is exceptional. I don’t know what they do to you guys growing up there, but you all seem to know how to put in a good days work.” 

NNYB: How many businesses are members of the Lewis County Chamber?

AUCTER: Currently, we are almost at 350. Since starting, the board of directors and I have been working on growing not only that number but also the benefits that members get along the way.

NNYB: Has this number increased or decreased over the last five years?

AUCTER: Starting in 2018 we obtained a new chamber database to allow us to invoice and track our members more conveniently as well as get them all on the same billing cycle. This has allowed us to get a more accurate number of member businesses. From previous records we have steadily grown and at monthly meetings we are averaging three new members a month.

NNYB: What are some of the member services or benefits that the Lewis County Chamber provides?

AUCTER: One of largest benefits that the chamber offers is its ability to advertise businesses events and promotions. Daily, we get requests from our members to either send information out via email, social media or in our newsletter. Since the updated website went live earlier this year we have had dozens of compliments on our events calendar. People are able to add their own events with the exact information they want shown. We also refer our businesses to thousands of people each year who are requesting anything from tourism, relocation and general business information every year. Sometimes we joke that we are the new age phone book. We offer discounted advertising for our businesses on things like the ATV and fall foliage tour maps. Members get a discount when signing up for one of our informational sessions throughout the year. There is also a discount for our members if they join the Lewis County Leadership Academy. We recently started our Lewis County Cash (Ca$h) program and members can choose to accept that as currency and get reimbursed through the Chamber as we want to continuously encourage our community to shop local.

NNYB: What member services or benefits would you like to start that have not yet been offered?

AUCTER: One project that I would love to start offering is a job shadowing program for students. The program would match them with businesses and organizations during their school breaks. We believe that this type of program could significantly shape the next generation of workers.

NNYB: What partnerships in the community have you made that extend the services the Chamber can offer?

AUCTER: For the last two years it has been quite a whirlwind. One of the partnerships I made was actually with the Better Business Bureau. The partnership with them has allowed us to simplify their accreditation process with our businesses and has also allowed us access to webinars and other training material to offer our member businesses. Melanie McGovern is our Upstate NY representative and she has been great leaps in helping local businesses. We also worked with Finn Partners out of New York City to be a part of a familiarization tour recently. This tour showcased five counties and Lewis County’s day just happened to be the day of the 14th Annual Cream Cheese Festival. The tour consisted of five travel bloggers who went ATV’ing from Flat Rock Inn in the morning, enjoyed the Cream Cheese Festival for lunch, went supping on the Black River with Ward Dailey, had dinner at Steak & Brew in Turin and spent the night at The Edge Hotel. We hope to have more of these tours in the future to increase awareness of what the county has to offer as well as highlight more of our amazing members.

NNYB: Brooke Rouse from the St. Lawrence County Chamber has said that they want to expand hospitality and lodging in their region. Is this something that is a focus of the Lewis County Chamber?

AUCTER: We definitely see the benefit of having more lodging in the area and I did participate in the study that was being done at the state level in regards to our region’s needs. I haven’t heard much, but I would expect to in the near future.

NNYB: The state has also been pushing for an increase in lodging, hospitality and tourism in the north country. Has the state approached Lewis County in any way to develop small businesses that would increase the amount of hospitality, tourism and lodging?

AUCTER: There was a phone conference in February this year with a firm that had been hired by Empire State Development to conduct a sustainable lodging study for the entire north country. While I have not heard more following this conference, suggestions that I made at the time were more campgrounds and a more diverse selection of lodging in the area. The lodging we have currently is great, don’t get me wrong, but it would be nice to have maybe an extremely upscale option or even a small name-brand hotel as well for travelers to have more to choose from when they come.

NNYB: What is most rewarding for you to be actively involved in the business community in Lewis County?

AUCTER: I think the most rewarding thing that has come from my involvement in the business community is seeing the camaraderie amongst businesses owners. I had no idea coming in to this that there would be so much assistance even between competitors. Most of the business owners really understand how they, and the community, benefit from having more products and services available to everyone.

NNYB: Where do you see the Lewis County Chamber in the next five years?

AUCTER: Tricky question. I came into this position at the end of 2016 and envisioned where I wanted to be in a year, five years, ten years, etc. But after being in this position I’ve reevaluated some of those goals. In the next five years I would obviously like to continue growing our membership base. Making connections and providing more networking opportunities for people to continuously grow in their businesses and personal lives. I would also really like to start proving that while we some of those small town stereotypes are true and accurate that they are not negative. We might move at a slower pace but we try to do things the right way. I also want to start working more with the youth and try to get them to see all the benefits of staying, or coming back after college, and using their skills and talents here. 

~Interview conducted by Holly C. Boname. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.