By Polly Keary, Editor
After two years at the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, which underwent sweeping changes during her leadership, Annique Bennett is resigning as director.
She has taken a job as Strategic Tourism Plan Coordinator at the office of the County Executive in the Office of Economic Development.
Taking her place will be Una Wirkebaugh-Hart, a consultant with extensive and worldwide tourism experience whose varied resume includes running an eco-tourism resort in rural Australia and starting a balloon rally in Colorado.
Bennett said that Monroe was the highlight of her career.
“It has been a life-changing experience being here in Monroe” she said. “It has been so positive and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I didn’t expect to learn so much, honestly.”
Bennett took over two years ago when the Chamber of Commerce was nearly broke and in a building on Main Street that was proving too expensive to occupy.
Within weeks, Bennett had closed the Visitor Information Center, relocated the Chamber of Commerce and started overhauling its marketing materials.
Old fundraisers with a low return-on-investment, such as the annual crab feed and the downtown car show, were jettisoned.
Bennett worked with a web developer who was creating a beta website platform to make the Chamber of Commerce a website with many benefits for members, including individual pages for their businesses and connectivity behind the scenes to allow networking.
The Chamber finally moved into the space it currently shares with the Monroe-Sultan Masonic Lodge.
Bennett also shifted the focus of the Chamber in the direction of facilitating and coordinating on events, such as the Tri Monroe Triathlon or Oktoberfest at the fairgrounds, to come to Monroe and bring visitors.
And she worked to nearly double the amount of tourism grant money the Chamber got from lodging taxes.
The last project she undertook was a new marketing concept called “Ride Here,” meant to compliment Monroe’s “The Adventure Starts Here” brand.
“It’s a way to think about Monroe,” she said. “No other city in the county offers the kind of experiences we have here, all related to rides. Horses, racecars, quarter midget, rodeos, wakeboarding, bicycling, fair rides. We want people to think of Monroe in that way.”
She is glad that the Chamber was able to pull through the recession and begin to rebuild, she said.
“It would have been horrible to see it go. It would be a huge vacuum,” she said. It would have been like other cities that don’t have an identity, that get built up and are generic, and I hope the chamber can remain that central contact organization for businesses and schools. I hate to imagine what Monroe would be like without it.”
The Chamber of Commerce Board and Bennett interviewed several strong applicants for the position, Bennett said.
“We had some highly qualified candidates, but at the end of the day we chose the right combination of experience,” she said. “She’s done a lot of events, non-profit; she’s traveled abroad and run businesses in Australia and Japan. She’s written grants; she’s connected to the tourism network and she’s got a ton of energy.”
Although her career has taken her around the planet, Wirkebaugh-Hart wanted to come to Monroe to get back to childhood roots.
“As a high school child I worked at the fair as a carnie,” she said. “I grew up in Kitsap County but I was always out here in the summer, and skiing at Stevens, and we’d do the Mountain Loop Highway.”
Her husband’s job as a heavy equipment operator brought them back to Seattle, and she ran her own consulting business until the opportunity to head the Monroe Chamber of Commerce arose.
“I love chambers of commerce, whether I was sitting on the board or being a volunteer,” she said. “It’s always been near and dear to my heart.”
Much of her work has been with non-profits, notably the Fairbanks Fair, a Colorado post with a bed and breakfast that led to her organizing an annual five-day hot air balloon rally, and in ecotourism in Australia.
She hopes, above all, to help improve the downtown business district.
“My best thing is seeing that historic quarter of downtown revitalized and see people embrace the fact the community has such a great history,” she said. “I want to see people be proud of being able to walk through the downtown and have it be beautiful, with green space, shops to go to, places to invite people to.”
It’s going to be tough, she acknowledged. But she thinks it’s not out of reach.
“I think everyone is ready for it,” she said. “Annique has really paved the way to get the ball rolling, so people can see results.”
Bennett’s last day will be Friday, April 4.