Loudoun Chamber Celebrates 5 Decades of Community Advocacy

The newspaper headlines are familiar.

Plans are being made to widen Rt. 7. The Board of Supervisors is wrestling with the merits of a massive development requested by one of the world’s largest tech companies. Purcellville residents complain about traffic on Main Street. Editorials focus attention on plans to extend rail service to Dulles Airport. Teachers lobby for raises in the school budget.

That was in 1968.

At that time, they were widening Rt. 7 from two to four lanes—not from four to six. They were negotiating with IBM over its planned development at Belmont Plantation, not with Amazon over a new headquarters. The Main Street controversy was sparked by VDOT’s controversial decision to paint stripes down the middle of the road. The newspaper was strongly for “rail to Dulles”—editorials that generated results, albeit five decades later. Oh, and school teachers won their push for raises, to $6,000 a year.

Also that year, the Board of Supervisors agreed to turn its tourism promotion efforts over to the newly chartered Loudoun Chamber of Commerce.

While the name may have been new in 1968, the organization’s community roots reach further back in time, although it’s not clear how far back. Some put the business group’s origins in the 1870s. More directly, its lineage is linked with the Leesburg Business Association/Leesburg Chamber of Commerce of the 1920s, which saw its influence and membership wax and wane through the decades.

Chamber historians point to Bill Spencer, who ran Leesburg’s WAGE radio station, as the first president of the modern-era, taking the office in 1960 just as Dulles Airport opened and the related extension of a regional sewer line set the stage for transforming the agricultural county. During Spencer’s term, the organization outlined intentions to incorporate and operate formally as a Chamber of Commerce, but, as is common in volunteer organizations, the initiative lacked follow through.

Throughout most of its tenure, the organization’s leaders focused on promoting tourism—especially protecting the colonial town attributes in downtown Leesburg. In 1964, the organization was commissioned by the Board of Supervisors to prepare a comprehensive tourism study. The resulting “Destination Loudoun” report outlined many priorities that are still championed today. The chamber would serve as the county’s main tourism agency for years to come.

The chamber of 1968 was no good ol’ boys group. Like many of Loudoun’s community organizations that influenced the political positions adopted by the county’s all-male government bodies, the Chamber was led by no-nonsense women. Attorney Helmi Carr—who, with her husband, brought the first defense contracting company to Loudoun—was the first female member of the chamber board and later the first female president. She is credited with recruiting Evelyn Reynolds to the treasurer’s post, and Reynolds is credited with recruiting Frances Raflo as the first executive director.

By the early 1970s, some chamber leaders had tired of the organization’s decades-long focus on tourism and pushed for more economic development outreach efforts. A second employee, Frank Armstrong, was hired as the economic development director.

After Raflo’s retirement in 1978, the county government created its own tourism office to continue her work. In the 1980s, the county hired its own economic development staff.

As Chamber membership grew—reaching 600 in the 1980s and more than 1,200 today—the organization’s efforts increasingly focused on helping promote the success of its member businesses.

Today’s Chamber has a staff of 11, led by Tony Howard, who has held the post of president and CEO since 2006. It operates a year-round slate of programs that includes leadership training, workforce development and community recognitions, such as the Valor and Small Business awards.

Over the past half century, the chamber’s focus has been as consistent as the ever-repeating headlines: support for tourism, sound planning for growth, better transportation and a strong education system. It’s a fair bet that those issues will remain at the core of Loudoun life for decades to come.

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