Shanna Cox, the new CEO and president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, plans changes to the organization to draw in more members. She is seen here on Jan. 2, 2020, on Lisbon Street, which she said has been transformed over the past decade by new businesses and restaurants. Credit: Lori Valigra

Shanna Cox remembers how awkward her father felt as he transitioned from being an airport electrician to managing projects for a global airfield electric systems company.

“The attire, computer skills, meeting frequency and environment were quite different,” said Shanna Cox, the recently hired president and CEO of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “He bought new clothes, took typing tutorials at home and went to the manufacturing floor for coffee breaks.”

Cox, who will turn 40 in July, calls herself a “blue-collar daughter” because both sides of her family were in trade jobs across multiple generations. Her father’s side is electricians. Her mother’s side is in fisheries and lobstering.

She also is no stranger to hard work. Born and raised in Orland, Cox waited tables, worked at a dry cleaner and delivered Chinese food to pay her way through the University of Maine in Orono. Often, she held down more than one job at a time.

She majored in land use planning and resource economics, but did not graduate with the rest of her class. A difficult pregnancy with twins sidelined her for seven years, leaving her senior year uncompleted.

Cox moved to Lewiston in 2009 and worked at Fuel restaurant, which closed in 2018.

“I was recently separated and moved into the heart of downtown Lewiston near Bartlett and Ash streets,” she said. “I waitressed five nights a week and had 4-year-old twins and a 2-year-old. I was a single mom of three. It was a busy and hard time in my life.”

Cox continued to waitress a couple nights a week as she started a nonprofit focused on healthy and safe housing, and then began working at Healthy Androscoggin, a Lewiston nonprofit, focused on lead poisoning work.

Children up to age three in the Lewiston-Auburn area have the highest incidence of lead poisoning in the state because of old housing stock.

With the lead problem in her own backyard, Cox has continued working with grassroots groups to educate residents and get the city and health officials involved.

She waited tables until 2013, when she started her own business, Project Tipping Point, aimed at improving substandard housing and poor community health and education. Cox still lives in what are known as the Tree Streets in Lewiston, where lead problems are pervasive.

She finished her University of Maine degree in 2015 and worked at Project Tipping Point until she became chamber head last fall.

Reaching out

When she took over the chamber, Cox noticed quickly that the numbers of trade company members have been thinning.

That’s in part because manufacturers and other trade companies saw business declines during the last recession. But Cox said it’s also because chamber events have been held at inconvenient times for such companies. They often have shift work so managers cannot leave the job to attend events at noon or early in the morning.

The chamber is adding events to its monthly breakfasts and business after hours meetings. They include a family night at the Nordiques hockey game in Lewiston this Friday, small business educational sessions held after work or on Saturdays instead of noon on weekdays and more affordable tiered-membership dues.

Cox said her inclusive strategy isn’t just for trade businesses. Other chamber members, including banks and real estate agents, want to do business with trade companies and would welcome a chance to meet them, she said.

“All of our members have some shared needs — staying relevant, connecting to customers, keeping an elevated profile and workforce,” Cox said. “It’s up to us to offer enough options that recognize this variance [in work hours].”

Catering to small businesses

Cox said about 60 percent of the 700 member companies in the chamber are small businesses. The companies include 40,000 employees in 14 communities in Androscoggin County, making the chamber one of the largest in Maine.

Overall, the chamber has an 83 percent member renewal rate each year. That’s on par with similar organizations nationally, Cox said, but she wants to improve that to 90 percent or higher. The chamber has lost members each of the last five years.

One of Cox’s first acts was to hold five roundtable discussions to ask what members and the community want.

“External perception is part of the challenge,” she said. “People don’t understand the role of the chamber and if it is relevant anymore. And business development takes time.”

Shortly after taking over the chamber in October 2019, she added tiers to the former two-tier membership fees to make it more affordable to more companies, including startups.

Memberships now run from $100 per year for volunteer service organizations up to $3,500 to be one of 20 businesses in a leadership roundtable that will help shape the chamber’s focus. So far, 14 businesses have signed on at that level.

This year she wants to better understand who the members are, including what the businesses do. Currently, the chamber only knows their size and location.

And she wants to use that information to help chip away at the workforce shortage.

“If the chamber put forward an effort that was industry- and business-led to address the workforce shortage, by taking folks who are disconnected from the workforce, getting them training and connecting them to jobs … we’d support businesses, the local economy and improve the quality of life for people,” she said.