The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce figured 2020 would be a banner year.
As the year started, the economy was strong and unemployment was low. Major construction projects were underway, bringing some of the largest investments in the city's history. And the chamber planned to celebrate its 150th anniversary at its annual meeting at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Then the pandemic changed that all.
"None of us anticipated what would happen early this year," David Ross, president and CEO of the chamber, said. "The impact and the challenge associated with a pandemic seems to compound the smaller the organization is."
Undeterred, the chamber moved forward with its grand celebration Thursday — though it took on a much different look. While last year's annual meeting drew some 1,300 to the DECC for dinner, attendees this year were invited to pick up a to-go lunch from a distribution site before joining a video presentation from their own homes or offices.
It may not have been quite the same, but Ross stressed the importance of the local business community coming together in a year that has seen government-mandated restrictions, the implementation of new health and safety protocols in virtually every workplace and so much uncertainty about the future.
"We are largely a chamber made up of small businesses," Ross told attendees. "That's our strength. So those businesses turned to the chamber to be a role model in being adaptable, to respond positively to what is brought our way, and we've been having those conversations and talking about the challenges that face us collectively."
Outgoing board chair Matt Baumgartner, of Grandma's Restaurants, said the chamber was forced to quickly become a liaison to local businesses, helping them navigate changing regulations and health guidelines, while meeting with local, state and federal officials to advocate for their needs.
"The chamber decided not to fall back, but to lean in," Baumgartner said. "It was still time to lead."
Karen Stromme, senior associate athletic director at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is taking over for Baumgartner as board chair in the year ahead.
"Our members have come to expect that, at the chamber, accomplishments are something to build on, not rest on," Stomme said. "This year has been challenging for our business community for our members for everyone. Despite these unforeseen circumstances of 2020, we will look forward to a brighter tomorrow."