NEWINGTON - When she was first hired, Gail Whitney was essentially office manager of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce-Newington branch. In the time since, the Newington Chamber became its own independent agency and Whitney, its executive director. Now 18 years later, she is anticipating a new title: grandmother.
This high-spirited community leader announced her retirement, effective Nov. 15. Her daughter is expecting a baby Feb. 19, which will give the family a few months to prepare for their new addition.
“This has been my baby for 18 years,” Whitney said on a recent morning, inside the chamber’s Main Street headquarters. “I’ve watched it grow. It’s time, but it’s definitely bittersweet.”
When the office was under the umbrella of the capital city’s chamber, things were much different.
“Hartford just cared about Hartford,” Whitney remembered. “They didn’t really know all the little businesses in Newington.”
A resident since 1979, Whitney raised her family in Newington. Before the chamber, she worked for the state Department of Education. She’s always been involved in town business, taking meeting minutes for Newington’s Commission on the Aging and Disabled since 1986 and the Lucy Robbins Welles Library Board since 1991.
As chamber director, she’s the ambassador for local shops, restaurants, doctor’s offices and businesspeople.
“We’re a big voice for a lot of small businesses in town,” Whitney said of the organization and its 250-plus members.
Last year, a compromise was negotiated with the Newington Town Plan & Zoning Commission over business signage. The chamber rallied together local business owners, who voiced their concerns about the town’s strict regulations. After lots of night meetings and a moratorium, business-friendly amendments were approved in October 2017.
“That’s an example of what we can do for businesses,” Whitney pointed out.
She worked closely on this effort with President Kathy Braga, Executive Vice President Terri Gogluicci and Vice President Deanna Reney - a group fondly referred to as “the Chamber Chicks.”
“I definitely want to stay in touch with everybody,” Whitney added. “Those friendships are too important to me.”
She made certain to stay on board until after the chamber’s 15th annual Silent Auction, Wine Tasting and Chocolate Challenge, held last weekend in the historic G. Fox Building in Hartford. The event is a fundraiser for the chamber’s scholarship fund and Lunch and Learn program at the high school. It began under her leadership, along with Cruising Newington in June.
“I’m most proud of the chamber’s growth,” Whitney said. “Our independence, how we were able to back away from Hartford and what we’ve done with that…but also expanding our focus from exclusively the Berlin Turnpike businesses to the downtown district and all around town.”
In 2007 the U.S. economy took a dive. Businesses suffered. Newington chamber membership dropped.
“That was a challenging time for us,” Whitney remembered. “People needed to pay their electric bill before their chamber dues.”
She’s worked to rebuild the organization over the last decade. These days, members have incentives to stay, from advertising campaigns to the annual Best of Newington Awards.
A new era is on the horizon, with the arrival of Pete Forcellina, the chamber’s incoming executive director.
“I think Pete’s going to take it in a different direction and I wish him well,” Whitney said, smiling at the newcomer, who has been getting his feet wet the last few weeks.
“I’m extremely excited about the opportunity,” Forcellina said. “I’ve lived in Newington 25 years, my children have gone through the Newington schools and I’m really looking forward to this.”
The Town Crier will be sitting down with him after the holidays to discuss Forcellina’s vision.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.