KENDALLVILLE — Kristen Johnson had already been working closely with the Kendallville Area Chamber of Commerce on a lot of projects and events.
So why not just take a shot at stepping into the role of the chamber’s leader?
That’s exactly what’s played out, as the chamber board selected Johnson as its new executive director. She officially started in the job June 10, succeeding former director Lynnette Leamon, who stepped down after five and a half years at the helm.
“I think I was pretty bummed when Lynnette told me when she was stepping down, because I feared we might lose that momentum,” Johnson said. “Now, I’m looking at it as an opportunity to continue that. I’m thrilled that the board has confidence in me to fill that role.”
Johnson’s no stranger to the nonprofit sector. In the past she’s worked for Drug Free Noble County, served as executive director of United Way of Noble County, worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana and served as fund development manager for LEAP before that organization shut down.
Since then she started her own business, Honey Pot Development, that’s worked with local nonprofits on fundraising and marketing on projects such as the fundraising drive to equip county police cars with AEDs. She’s also been the sponsor for the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council. She also ran for a seat on the Kendallville City Council this spring, but finished second in the four-way race.
All of that experience made Johnson stand out as the best candidate among six who were seeking the executive director job, chamber board President Sally Riecke said.
“Kristen is very forward-thinking. She’s already so very involved in the community. She is a great person as far as someone who will be able to bring funds for our community,” Riecke said. “She’s got lots and lots of experience with fundraising and marketing, which is great because we want to bring more people to our community.”
The chamber represents all businesses in Kendallville, but Johnson, like many people active in the city, is particularly excited about new opportunities downtown.
“We’ve got a lot of great businesses here in downtown. I think the downtown is gaining momentum as far as changing and renovating,” she said.
She’s confident the city will get a $600,000 streetscape grant this fall from the state and that will allow Kendallville to revamp its sidewalks and curbs and add more decorative features.
From there, working to try to get “good fit” businesses to fill vacancies downtown will allow the two-block core to thrive. Part of that could be through encouraging new businesses, which dovetails with a new program Johnson has already been working on with the chamber.
“I would really like to see us focusing more on small businesses. I’m already working on an entrepreneur camp for this summer and would like to put an entrepreneur incubator downtown to get their feet wet before they move into a big space,” Johnson said.
Beyond that, events that draw people into the downtown will be key. Johnson was one of the driving forces in the highly successful Fairy, Gnome and Troll Festival that brought hundreds to downtown May 18, and those types of events need to continue, she said.
From a chamber business side, Johnson knows she has to continue to build membership, work on annual chamber events and help businesses get a good return on investment for their membership fee.
The first couple of weeks or months are likely going to be a learning curve as she comes into the new position and learns all the different things the chamber is involved in.
“There are so many things going on, I feel like I’ve got to get in there and get comfortable with all of the activity that is happening,” she said.
Riecke is confident that Johnson will be able to pick up where Leamon left off and keep moving Kendallville ahead.
“Lynnette did so much for our community, being on all the different boards and being such a great advocate for the city of Kendallville,” Riecke said. “I think Kristen will pick right up where she left off and zoom right on through it. I really think she’ll do great.”