Chamber celebrates 40 years of serving local businesses
It started, as do many things in small towns, with a conversation at the post office. Then there came a letter from the CIA.
And with that, 40 years ago, the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce was born.
So says the organization’s first president, Clayton Ringler. Now 87 years old and living in Hayesville, NC, Ringler fondly recalled the chamber’s early days in a phone conversation last week.
The post office conversations, Ringler said, led to meetings of the first of the chamber’s organizers at Murray’s Topside Restaurant in Ocean View. Soon, the local newspaper, the Delmarva News, picked up on the chamber’s formation and published an article about it.
That’s where that letter comes into play. It was actually from Odette May, who at the time worked for the Central Intelligence Agency but was looking to retire in Bethany Beach. May, it seems, had seen the newspaper article and was writing to tell Ringler she wanted to get involved in the chamber.
“She said she liked what I said about everything,” Ringler recalled. “I said, yes, you can be our first director.”
And that’s how the first chamber office came to be in May’s bedroom.
On Wednesday, Oct. 26, Chamber Executive Director Kristie Maravalli told those gathered at Bethany Blues for a special 40th anniversary event “there are so many reasons to be proud. So many stories.”
Richard Mais, out-going Chamber president, recognized the growth of the chamber into a group that represents the variety of businesses in the Quiet Resorts. “We have a very diverse group of businesses that are members,” said Mais, who owns McCabe’s Gourmet Market in South Bethany with his wife, Rebecca.
Mais also praised the Chamber staff, which he said “has planned and executed our events and activities flawlessly.”
As he turned the gavel over to new chamber president Ron Derr, Mais said “we want to be sure we are on the right track, with services, events and educational programs we are providing.”
Derr, president of the accounting firm PKS & Co., takes the helm of an organization that now has 733 members – 34 of those new to the Chamber in the past year. He said at the anniversary celebration that he hopes to lead the chamber in focusing more attention on the parts of its service area beyond Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island as well as broadening the “shoulder seasons” – the seasons that bookend the already popular summertime in the beach areas.
Both Ringler and Kenny Crooks, the second president of the Chamber, were awarded the group’s highest honor, the Lighthouse Award, at the anniversary gathering. Although Ringler could not attend due to a broken leg, his cousin as well as fellow Chamber past president Kevin Lynch, owner of Selbyville Pet & Garden in Selbyville, accepted his award for him.
Crooks, longtime owner of Treasure Island Fashions in Ocean View, took the podium to remark that “it’s amazing it’s been 40 years,” recalling the early days of meeting first at May’s house and then at the former Baltimore Trust Bank in Bethany Beach, where Ringler served as executive vice president.
In an interview at his store next to G&E Supermarket on Cedar Neck Road, Crooks said he was “shocked” to hear that the Chamber now has more than 700 members. “The last I remember, it was around 100, maybe” Crooks said.
Both Ringler and Crooks recalled that in the Chamber’s early days, many of the town officials in the beach towns had much more of an “anti-business” attitude than they do today. Ringler said there was an attitude, particularly among those who had moved to the beaches from cities like Washington, D.C., that “we’ve got ours and nobody else needs to come,” so they failed to see how successful businesses could benefit the area.
Ringler said the chamber made its presence known as an advocate for the business community, which led to some tense moments between Chamber officials and the towns. “We would just stick our nose in there,” he said. “We didn’t fight, we just argued.”
Even businesses such as the now gone but long-beloved putt-putt golf course on Garfield Parkway initially found resistance in the town. “It was a long time before we got that straightened out,” Ringler said.
There were, in fact, far fewer full-time residents in the area than there are now. Ringler said that in his early days at the bank, the town had a year-round population of 39. “People thought we were crazy” to open a business like a bank in such an area, he said.
Crooks agreed that the towns have become more “business-friendly” in their policies and actions over the years.
“We’ve had our ups and downs” Ringler said, “but we all just worked together.”
Far from being all business, the Chamber has organized many popular events in the area. One of the first Crooks recalled was a canoe race between the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber and the Milford Chamber. Ringler recalled the early days of the Chamber-sponsored Boardwalk Arts Festival, which at first didn’t extend past the bandstand. Today’s festival fills the entire boardwalk and spills onto area streets for one of the most popular “shoulder season” events.
The chamber office itself has also come a long way from its beginnings Odette May’s bedroom. Thanks to generous donations and work by Frank Raskauskas and William Murray, the Chamber now has an oceanfront office and information center in Fenwick Island which makes it a convenient resource for businesses and visitors alike.
As the chamber celebrated its 40th anniversary last week, current director Maravalli urged members to “Be proud of how far you have come, and have faith in how far you can go.” Maravalli marveled at how an idea of a few business people 40 years ago has prospered and grown along with the area itself.
“Thank you to all who carried the torch,” she said.