MACHIAS, Maine — Kathy Howell is a whirling dervish. One moment she is offering coffee, the next she is talking about hot air balloon festivals, while in the next breath she is directing visitors in the office to the nearest inn or passing out brochures on the coming Wild Blueberry Festival.
Howell has had about a month to settle into her new position as director of the Machias Area Chamber of Commerce and folks watching her style are already smiling at this whirlwind of optimism.
“I don’t like to hear someone criticize or complain but then do nothing,” Howell said Tuesday. “I prefer to figure out a way to make things better.”
So far, her attitude is working. “This is really not like a job,” Howell admitted. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this. We are making amazing connections.”
Already Howell is working closely with chambers across the state, networking and bringing new ideas to Washington County.
“These are my goals for the Chamber: to become visible, to have credibility and to be encompassing,” she said. “We have a job to do and that is to allow all our businesses to be the best they can be.”
In her first month on the job, Howell has visited numerous businesses, held meetings with community leaders and begun to create a plan for the next 10 years. Chamber membership is now up to 195 businesses and people.
At the top of Howell’s list is the renovation of Station 98, a former train station in Machias that will become the future home of the Chamber. Currently the Chamber rents a small space tucked behind other Route 1 businesses and is often difficult for visitors to find.
Many in town think of Station 98 as a dismal failure, she admits. It was constructed in 1898 and was intended to be completely renovated and occupied by 1998. Fundraising and interest lagged, however, and the project stalled.
“This just plays into the mindset that Washington County can’t get ahead,” Howell said. “But we have now given ourselves 18 months to complete the project.”
Members of the Beehive Collection, an international social action group based in Machias, have offered their assistance and Jordan’s Greenhouse has donated landscaping.
Howell said bead board will be reinstalled, tin ceilings and vintage-looking light fixtures will be put in place. Once completed, the station will become the home for the Chamber and the gateway to the Downeast Sunrise Trail. There will also be conference and meeting space available to the public.
“This project is so important to the Chamber’s credibility that I almost feel like this is the reason I moved to Maine,” she said.
Howell, who was a school teacher for 30 years in both Ohio and Maine, moved to Jonesport several years ago with her husband, James, a retired county sheriff. Both have become active in their community and county. James Howell recently accepted a position as a criminal justice instructor at Narraguagus High School in Harrington.
“We’re both supposed to be retired,” Howell said, rolling her eyes.
Howell said she is “an out-of-the-box thinker,’’ which is evidenced by some of her ideas for fundraisers for the Station 98 project. In September 2012, Machias will host its first hot air balloon festival. She expects at least 30 balloons to be located at the Machias Valley Airport and will be inviting local groups, such as sports boosters and other nonprofits, to set up food booths.
“Can you imagine seeing Down East and Machias at leaf peeping season from a hot air balloon? It will be amazing,” she said. Howell previously has served as a crew member on a ballooning team and can bring that expertise to the Machias event.
Howell said she will also bring back the Eggs & Issues breakfast meetings; has instituted an internship program with Machias Memorial High School, Washington Academy and the University of Maine at Machias; will be hosting a series of workshops for business owners on technology, social marketing and other topics; and has instituted Saturday hours at the Chamber to better serve tourists.
She is also working on an antique and vintage car show and a motorcycle rally as well as seeking ideas for a special spring celebration. Howell is also setting up Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for the Chamber.
“My personality doesn’t let me take no for an answer,” Howell said. “I am willing to take the bull by the horns. I’m definitely not one to sit back and watch something unfold or fall down.”
Anyone looking to volunteer or join the Chamber may call 255-4402 or go to www.machiaschamber.org.