Inspiring Women at home and around the world
Note: This is the third installment in a feature series about Inspiring Women. It is dedicated to all women who are trying to make a difference and better other people’s lives, as well as their own. In putting together this feature series, I was inspired by several moments in life that in particular stand out.
No.1 A dedication of a Relax, mind, body & soul book by Barbara Heller from my son Jake: “I dedicate this to my inspiring and motivational mother.” Kuba
No. 2 While on a story prior to Mother’s Day, I dropped in at Ace Bernard Hardware to talk about the prizes with owner Charlie Bernard. We talked also about the Lowell Area Chamber and its director Liz Baker.
“You know what I like about Liz, she keeps re-inventing herself,” Bernard said.
No. 3 Again on a story prior to the International Women’s Day I talked to Sow Hope president Mary Dailey Brown.
“If you want to make a difference in this world, seriously consider helping impoverished women. Helping women is the key to unlocking poverty.”
No. 4 At a parents teacher conference at Cherry Creek Elementary in Lowell in mid 1990s: “Mrs. Pala, we do not give up,” teacher Karen Latva said.
IW Chamberdirector Liz Baker reinvents herself and Lowell events
Name: Liz Baker
Position: Executive director
Hobbies & interests: camping, ATVs, kayaking, antiquing
Volunteer: Schneider Manor board, Lowell Community Wellness Board
By Emma Palova
EW Emma’s Writings
Lowell, MI – Lowell Area Chamber director started with a filing cabinet and a phone in the old white building on the east end of town in 1994 as a secretary. Most people don’t remember where the old chamber was.
“What did I get myself into,” she said.
Being behind most events in Lowell, Baker manages to keep low profile in her back office. Prior to becoming the director, she had her own cleaning business.
But aunt Betty said Baker had more in her than just doing an ordinary job.
The chamber was first established as a Board of Trade in 1906.
FMB president Jim Bosserd recommended Baker and the chamber hired her.
“I was the assistant director, and I didn’t know who was the director,” she laughed. “What should I do?”
At the time, the chamber did two events: Christmas parade and annual dinner. The Lowell Area Schools said somebody needs to be at the chamber.
“They took a leap of faith and hired me,” Baker said. “I became the executive director.”
Then came the big question.
“How are we going to pay for the Riverwalk?” said Baker.
The two day festival started originally on Labor Day with arts & crafts, entertainment, duck race and a pig roast.
“It just started and we made money,” she said. “From then on I was free to create festival that I wanted to.”
Baker started going to the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to get money.
Her biggest accomplishment was the partnership with Lowell Area Schools for the annual March Expo 19 years ago. At the time it was the only community expo in the area.
Sizzlin’ Concerts with Lowell Arts are a big hit, as well as two Girls Nights Out, one in the spring, one in the fall. In the early years, Riverwalk was still on Labor Day.
Since, people leave for the holidays, the chamber moved the Riverwalk to the second weekend in July.
“It made world of difference,” she said. “It has evolved with corporate ducks and sponsorships and we went back to a two-day event, well three with the concerts.”
The fireworks are not cheap. The show costs $6,000 to put on. It is sponsored by Laurels of Kent.
The Riverwalk Festival is the biggest fundraiser for the chamber. It brings in between $18,000 to $25,000.
“Most of these events depend on the weather,” she said.
Harvest Celebration is in the fall, and it has been going on for 15 years.
“It is a community event organized by the chamber with marketing funds,” Baker said.
Jodie Haybarker started Christmas through Lowell, a three-day event.
“How can we get businesses involved?” Baker said. “What better event for the chamber. It has been running beautifully.”
DDA sponsors Christmas activities like Santa visits on the Showboat. The Christmas parade route changed and it went to a night parade five years ago.
“Changing the route was good, it was hard on the little ones,” she said.
With this huge output Baker relies on 200 volunteers.
The secret to successful events is early preparation. Volunteers start getting ready for Expo in November, while preparations for Riverwalk start in February.
“We’re very diligent about technology, our marketing is going to the website,” she said.
The concert line-up starts in January/February. Then there also member events such Breakfast Clubs (12) and Lunch & Learn (4), as well as business after hours (2).
Because Lowell is a family community, when the school is out not much happens.
And Baker moved to a new office in the back of the building on the Riverwalk. The general contractor was Evert Bek.
Baker has a part-time person on staff, Catherine Bek, and twice a week Carol Briggs and Peggy Idyma help out, and Barb Zandstra will be back.
As far as weaknesses, Baker says about herself that she gets easily attached to people and things.
“I am getting bigger shoulders now, but I am an emotional sap,” she said. “I love my job. There’s always enough variety and excitement.”
That is why Charlie Bernard of Ace Hardware said about Baker that she keeps reinventing herself.
She was also chair for the Riverwalk Showboat Development plan in 2014. Baker is motivated by Lowell’s vision.
“I want Lowell to be the best there is,” she said. “I go to other communities for inspiration.”
West Michigan Chamber Network does round tables.
“We take ideas from each other,” she said. “But we get robbed quite a bit. We’ve been a role model for MDOT for outside the box thinking.”
Lowell enjoys an amazing camaraderie, according to Baker. “We pull together.”
For two years, the bridge project was the biggest challenge, and then of course the economic downturn.
“The economy just tanked in 2004-2005,” she said. “The big box stores are hard for retail. But, I can’t stop them. I’d like to see a better balance, see more restaurants, small boutique shops and sports kayak shop. I don’t know if we have the right demographics.”
Trail projects are moving ahead, Lowell is in their center.
“It will bring us, business, visitors and tourists,” she said. “We have a designated water trail. And the national headquarters of the North Country Trail (NCT) are located here.
How about plans and visions for Baker and Lowell?
Baker would like to see the Showboat rebuilt and a permanent stage on the Riverwalk.
There are conceptual plans for a permanent stage.
“We want to grow to be sustainable and to be here for years to come,” she said.
And Expo is coming up on March 28th at the Lowell High School. The Expo covers the area of the Lowell Area schools, this include seven townships and the city of Lowell.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Baker said. “I’ve never had a problem finding an exclusive sponsor. If you’re not at the Expo you should be.”
The board sets goals such as getting out more into the community, how to sell yourself and to be the best you can be.
“The businesses need to be taught that too,” she said. “You keep pressing forward, motivating businesses and being their cheerleader. They have to reinvent themselves too. They have to take that first step and become members.”
There are approximately 300 members, and people call for referrals.
“It gives them credibility,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of vacant buildings.”
Here are a few comments from the chamber’s facebook page:
“I’ve always been amazed at how much our Lowell Chamber of Commerce achieves and is involved in our community,” wrote Tina Maire Greene. “I can always count on the chamber for suggestions and recommendations when I need them for particular services.”
“Best Chamber of Commerce ever. They go above and beyond to provide residents and businesses with fun, family friendly activities and events,” wrote Ella K. St. Germain.
Liz Baker-the woman behind the superwoman
1-What makes you feel good about yourself?
I exercise, eat right and healthy.
2-How do you strike a balance between work and family?
Family has to come first. Sometimes they take the back seat. That’s the honesty.
3-What do you do for yourself?
First family, spiritual wellbeing and work. That’s how it plays out for me.
4-What is your biggest fear?
I am fearless.
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