WESTERLY — With COVID-19 making large indoor gatherings dangerous, the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, known for its creativity and trailblazing, came up with an alternative approach for its annual membership meeting — conducting it outdoors at the Misquamicut Drive-In Theater.
More than 100 vehicles parked at the Atlantic Avenue facility Wednesday for the event, whose theme was "Above and Beyond." In keeping with the theme, speakers climbed into the buckets of two tree-service trucks provided by Rocky's Tree Service and were lifted high above the crowd to make their remarks.
It was not the first time the chamber has organized a high-flying event. In 2018, the chamber held a high-speed zipline fundraiser at Foxwoods to help pay off the mortgage on its office building.
"I thought zip lining for the chamber two years ago was going to be my last solo aerial act for this organization," said Edward Morrone, the event's master of ceremonies, while perched high above the ground in one of the elevated buckets.
The response by the chamber, its staff and the community to the coronavirus pandemic was a central theme throughout the evening. Outgoing board chairman Jennifer Brinton, co-owner of Grey Sail Brewing of Rhode Island, recalled the town was in the midst of celebrating its 350th anniversary when she took the position last year. The chamber and its staff played a critical role in organizing a year's worth of events for the celebration.
"As a board of directors, we ended 2019 amazed at the energy level and tremendous impact of our chamber membership and our staff at the chamber. We thought we could not be prouder. Well, we were wrong ... 2020 brought in a pride in our chamber that is immeasurable," Brinton said.
Stay-at-home orders and other measures taken to slow the spread of the virus hurt everyone and did not "leave a person, a business, or a community untouched," Brinton added.
The chamber's staff — Lisa Konicki, president, and Maria DiMaggio, membership and operations manager — sprang into action and earned a new level of pride from the chamber's executive board and its board of directors, Brinton said. The executive board met weekly through the shutdown.
Konicki and Brinton's work promoting local businesses and restaurants included the creation of weekly Facebook Live events that gave local businesses a platform to connect with customers when their doors were forced shut and a virtual Virtu Art Festival. Through Konicki and DiMaggio's efforts, $34,600 worth of chamber gift certificates, which are redeemable at local businesses, were sold during the three-month-long shutdown.
Chamber staff also helped local businesses apply for relief loans and an Easter Bunny with "close ties" to Konicki visited hundreds of local households to bring a smile to children in the community. According to Brinton, the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce was the only chamber in the region to remain fully open throughout the shutdown and was the first in the country to hold a non-virtual annual meeting.
"As chairman, as a business owner and as a resident, my personal appreciation for these women is unprecedented," Brinton said.
Konicki's remarks came in the form of a poem she wrote.
"The chamber sprang into action to reach our full potential. Every job and business counts to us, you're all essential," she said.
A segment of the poem praised DiMaggio and Erica Agnello, whose job with the chamber fell victim to a pandemic-forced layoff.
"Often thought the chamber's face, I'm just the left arm tonight, because nothing would have been accomplished without Maria DiMaggio, because she's the right. Seven days a week, dedication beyond measure, she showed perseverance, an employee and friend, I treasure," Konicki said.
The chamber's Key Award, bestowed periodically for embodiment of commitment to the chamber and its mission was given to Chris DiPaola, the owner of radio station WBLQ. A stalwart presence at all community events, DiPaola was praised for supporting chamber programs and events and especially for his efforts during the pandemic.
Like Morrone, DiPaola, flew down the Foxwoods zip line in 2018, and on Wednesday he broadcasted the annual meeting on the station's airwaves.
"He is there for us for every single event ... he gives us 100 percent to make sure everyone in this community knows what's happening," Konicki said.
Maria Allen, the owner of Bella Vita Salon, was announced as the chamber board's new chairman effective July 1. The board gavel, which Allen quickly sanitized, was passed up to her elevated bucket via a string.
The Citizen of the Year Award was given to the entire community for its response to the pandemic.
"The chamber board felt strongly that it would be unfair to single out just one as everyone played an important role in helping fight this battle and to keep our community safe," Morrone said.
The annual meeting was dedicated to the memory of three women, each of whom died this year, for their work on behalf of the chamber. The women are Joan Rushlow, who served as chamber executive director for 11 years, Angela Smith, a 20-year chamber board member, and Pat Grande, the second woman to serve as chairman of the chamber board.