When Matthew Mandell told his wife he’d been offered the position of executive director and president of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, her reaction was quick:
“Well, now you’ll get paid for doing what you’ve been doing all along.”
She’s right. Mandell — who began his new job last week — has served Westport in many capacities for years.
He’s a 5-term RTM member, chairing its Planning and Zoning Committee and serving on 5 others. He helped save the 22-acre Partrick Wetlands, along with 11 acres adjacent to Hiawatha Lane and 6 acres at the White Barn Theatre.
He championed the movement of the Kemper-Gunn House from Elm Street to the Baldwin parking lot; preservation of the building next to Terrain, and is working now to save the Geiger’s barn. He’s an Earthplace trustee, too.
Mandell also helped found Slice of Saugatuck. In fact, his work on that food-and-fun festival was a major reason the Chamber sought him out when they needed a new leader — for the 3rd time in 2 years.
After its 1st 2 wildly successful runs — organized entirely by volunteers — the Chamber offered to take over the event. But they dropped the ball last fall. So Chamber officials asked to meet with Mandell.
He thought they were talking about how to make the next Slice work. They were interviewing him for a job.
The Chamber wanted Mandell because of his great track record promoting businesses and jobs in Westport. It’s a town he’s known since 1972, lived in part-time since 1987, and moved to permanently in 2005.
Mandell first came here as a summer resident, with his mother. He attended Indian Walk Day Camp — and, through a former fellow camper, met a woman 14 years later who eventually became his wife.
The Mandells weekended here for over a decade, before buying a home on Ferry Lane East. That’s a short walk over the little-known railroad pedestrian bridge from Saugatuck, which Mandell quickly discovered has great history and neighborhood charm.
As Saugatuck boomed, Mandell became one of its biggest boosters. That brought him to the Chamber’s attention, and led eventually to his new post.
The director is blunt about the Chamber’s past few years. It’s been in Westport since 1931, but recently slid toward irrelevancy.
“We need to use the same model that worked for Slice of Saugatuck. If we bring people in, and they walk around and see what we’ve got, there will be a real sense of community.
“I don’t know what’s in half of the Post Road malls. But I know there are hidden gems there. We have to find them, and show them off.”
Mandell — who earned an MFA in film from New York University — will use video and social media much more than the Chamber did before.
“I’m not a businessman. I have no firm marketing background,” the new director admits. “But I do know how to advocate, and get people out.”
He was also the New York state champion debater in high school. “My wife says I can talk to anybody,” Mandell notes.
He embraces the challenges ahead. “People think the Chamber of Commerce is stodgy,” he says. “We have to give them people information so they think of us as more modern, as an important part of the community.”
His goal in his new role is to make Westport “even better than it is. The Chamber needs to be a cheerleader for the town — not just its businesses, but its residents too. If we achieve that, we’ll all thrive as a result.”