Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michelle O’Brien has filled many roles since arriving in town from Tallahassee, Florida in 2009.
She originally moved to Ketchikan to take a job with Ketchikan Public Utilities as a sales and marketing manager for the Telecommunications Division.
“That was 2009 — that was another really bad economic time, right?” she said.
She said that job prospects in Tallahassee mostly were in the education and government sector, so she’d been casting her job search net wider and found the KPU job listing.
“I thought well, I’ll send a resume in, but I’m in Florida and they’re in Alaska, you know, they’re never going to call me,” she said, adding, “and the rest is history.”
Although she was hired at KPU as a sales and marketing manager to work as a team with KPU Sales & Marketing Manager Kim Simpson, she said the main task they were given was to revamp the KPU Telecommunications Division to run more like a private company.
About two weeks after she started at KPU, O’Brien said she showed a video to KPU Telecommunication Divison Manager Ed Cushing that a friend of hers from Tallahassee had created for a television series titled “Live in Tallahassee.”
“I said ‘Isn’t this cool? Isn’t this fun?’ and that was it,” O’Brien said.
She said Cushing urged her to start a “Live in Ketchikan” series for KPU.
She said her instruction simply was: “Here’s 17 channels, just don’t make it boring.”
From that point on, O’Brien said, she focused on running the TV and social media portions of the division while continuing to do some work with Simpson on marketing.
Early upon her arrival in Ketchikan, O’Brien said she noted the Chamber of Commerce and the director position, and thought that it looked like a fun job, with all of the events and the interaction with community members.
A few months after arriving in Ketchikan, O’Brien said she saw that there were three seats open but just one candidate running in the upcoming Ketchikan School Board election (elections), so she ran, and won as a write-in candidate, then ended up as the president of the board.
O’Brien served on the School Board until July 2016, when she ended that term early because she had been traveling so much in her role as Rotary International district governor that she realized she’d miss far too many School Board meetings as a result of required travel. O’Brien is a member of First City Rotary.
Other volunteer positions that O’Brien holds include serving as a board member for the PATH homeless shelter and for the Ketchikan Area Arts & Humanities Council.
Her next career change was to join the team at the KTKN/KGTW radio station.
“At that point, honestly, I felt like I’d achieved everything that I could achieve at KPU TV,” she said. “We won every award, we did all of this stuff and it was like, ‘Ok, what else can we do,’ and I just wasn’t sure, because one thing I really like to do with an organization is to just really take it to a new level, and when I see an opportunity like that, it’s always really appealing.”
After she started in the general manager position at the radio station, she was told that they also would be folding the KFMJ radio station into their organization as well.
She had been chair of the Alaska Broadcasting Commission, she said, and at that point, because of her job with the commercial radio stations, she stepped down from that board position.
In her new role as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, which she took on in August, O’Brien talked about what she enjoys most about her new position.
“I’m really looking forward to revitalizing the Chamber to an even better level,” O’Brien said.
“The other part about it,” she added, “is, I think that right now, given everything that’s going on with Ketchikan economically — you know, so many questions about the cruise ships and tourism and various industries and economic diversification — I think the chamber is going to have a really, really important role in supporting Ketchikan businesses.”
She said that a core goal of hers is to raise the awareness of the chamber’s role in town, among community members and businesses alike.
“That’s why we’re switching up all the events, the membership, and a bunch of other stuff,” she added.
Some events that the chamber is involved in or running currently is the “Merry Merchants & Munch” program which encourages people to shop and dine locally, the Beacon of Hope Tree Auction, the Winter Arts Blitz walk and the Small Business Selfie contest.
Information about those events can be found on the chamber’s Facebook page.
“I think it’s increasingly important that the chamber becomes even more relevant,” O’Brien said. “Especially with everything that’s going on, right? One of the ways that we’re planning on doing that is by really pumping up the volume of things that are happening. So, not only a lot more events, but different ways of doing those events and more of them, but also tools for people’s toolboxes.”
Another way the chamber connects with the community has been its chamber lunches, and O’Brien said they’ve continued to hold those virtually this year.
She said she feels very strongly about taking those lunches “up to the next level.”
This past week, she invited a company from Skagway to present information about the e-commerce site “Voyij.com” (which) that they own. She said it’s a way for merchants to get their products up on a website for free with a simple commission structure.
She explained that selling items online can be important because merchants have discovered that a lot of people are buying Alaska items before they come on their trip or after their trip to the state.
Benefits of chamber membership O’Brien listed included free Small Business Development Center counseling, access to tools and information that business owners may need, customer referrals, advocacy and legislative “push.”
She added that one of her goals as the new director is to emphasize and grow are the “unexpected” benefits that people may not be aware of.
O’Brien also said she’d recently been asked why the chamber has been focusing on a program to draw in people from bigger cities to work remotely in Ketchikan.
She explained, “that’s an economic driver that we can put in place right now without having to wait for legislation or licenses or permits or anything else. We can launch it and market it, and quite frankly, we need to do it sooner than later because every day I read another article about another town that is launching a marketing effort and their efforts to attract these remote workers.
“And, the reason being, is because who wants to live in a huge city where it costs $4,500 to rent a 400-square-foot efficiency, and ‘also I’ve got COVID, and also I’ve got riots outside my place and also I have an hour-and-a-half commute,” O’Brien said.
She said that Ketchikan’s proximity to Seattle is a very attractive aspect of Ketchikan’s location to remote workers. She said Anchorage has been successful in attracting remote workers, and she feels Ketchikan has many more benefits than Anchorage.
She said many businesses and other entities, such as PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, already regularly bring in employees from other cities, and many of those people stay in town past their originally planned term.
“One role of the chamber,” O’Brien said, “is to make sure that experience in our community is a really positive one.”
O’Brien emphasized her enthusiasm for Ketchikan’s small businesses.
“I’ve always been a huge cheerleader of the small businesses,” she said. “To me, there’s just nothing better than walking into one of our local stores, and it’s a place where you can walk in and … they know you, they know your kids, you have a conversation and then you pick up your stuff and you’re like, ‘oh no, I forgot my wallet’ and they’re like,’ oh don’t worry, just come back, or the proverbial phrase, ‘It’s OK, I know where to find you.”
When asked what she had found the most difficult part of her new job was, she laughed and answered simply, “Quickbooks!”
“I think what I really want people to know is that the chamber is very different,” she said. “It is changing rapidly and it is literally for all businesses. From the one person who works out of their home to the Vigor shipyards, and everyone in between. Literally there’s something for everyone at the chamber.”