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Tracy Frank, Published April 24 2010

Whitney reaches out

Craig Whitney isn’t wasting any time getting to know the Fargo-Moorhead business community.

The new president and CEO of the Fargo Moorhead Chamber of Commerce has been on the job for six weeks and is already evaluating programs and events, and speaking out on business issues such as proposed changes to Fargo’s sign ordinance and a possible merger with the West Fargo chamber.

The merger is an issue that came up when Whitney met with Red River Valley Fair general manager, Bryan Schulz, and assistant general manager, Jodi Buresh Tuesday.

“There is definitely the opportunity now with you coming in with fresh ideas and with our board not having (an executive director and CEO),” Schulz told Whitney. “I personally think we should go forward with it.”

The Red River Valley Fair Association is one of at least 60 chamber member businesses Whitney has met with to introduce himself, to get to know the members and to learn about what matters to them.

“I’m taking a look at the organization, what seems to be working, and what we can improve on,” he told Schulz and Buresh.

Throughout his meetings, Whitney also seems to be looking out for local businesses.

As he toured the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks gift shop on Tuesday, he asked if any of the products were made by local companies.

“Yeah, quite a bit,” said Josh Buchholz, RedHawks general manager, indicating that many of the shirts came from CI Sport and Coaches Choice, both Fargo companies.

Karen Lauer, chamber board chairwoman and executive director of the Barnesville (Minn.) Economic Development Authority, said Whitney has hit the ground running.

“He has done an excellent job of reaching out to our members, community leaders, and has been working hard to gain a good pulse on the community,” she said.

Whitney most recently lobbied for New York-based private investment firm Cerberus Capital Management.

He said he became interested in leading a chamber when he was vice president of public affairs for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce in Arizona from 2000 to 2002.

The Arizona chamber had not been actively involved in public policy, Whitney said.

“The board wanted to see that changed and the credentials and experience that I had helped them make a decision to make that move,” he said. “As soon as I started, I started beefing up the public affairs committee.”

That’s something Whitney is working on here.

The regional issues committee will be renamed the public affairs committee. More chamber members will be recruited to serve on the committee, which will have a stronger focus, studying in detail issues members think the chamber should take a position on, Whitney said.

“At the end of the day, the question we will ask about every one of these issues is how will it affect business and what is good for business, because that is what we are all about,” he said.

Whitney has also met with elected officials as part of his more proactive public policy role.

“The board as a whole has been very pleased with his aggressive approach to dealing with these public policy matters that have come up and the sense of urgency that he has addressed them with,” Lauer said.

He said Whitney swiftly brought Fargo’s proposed sign ordinance to the board, made a recommendation and moved forward.

“In this economy and the challenges that businesses face, government should not be getting involved and doing things to hinder the ability of businesses to stay in business,” Whitney said.

Whitney said his priority is providing value in chamber memberships. The chamber is looking for ways to improve programs and is planning educational events, such as interpreting the health care reform bill, Whitney said.

Whitney wants the chamber’s membership to grow from 1,800 to 2,000 members in the near future.

“I think we’re charting a course where we’ll be able to obtain that,” he said.

Katie Hasbargen, Microsoft Fargo communications manager and a member of the chamber board of directors, said Whitney has offered a lot of new and innovative ideas.

“I think he’s going to do a great job of connecting the businesses here in the area and I think he’s going to do a great job of leading the chamber forward,” Hasbargen said.

Whitney and his wife of 26 years, Lori, have two children: Matthew, 23, who plans to move to the area soon, and Meredith, 19, a sophomore at Western Michigan University.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526