Lending a Helping Hand: Ann Marie Baker
By Tom Carlson
If Chamber involvement was a sport, Ann Marie Baker would be a player not a spectator. She has participated in about every Chamber activity since joining in the late ‘80s.
When the UMB executive joined the Chamber, her first committee assignment was working on member retention. It was a lot of phone work encouraging Chamber members to pay their delinquent dues. While dinging people to pay what they owe is part of a banker’s job sometimes, it is not the fun part of the job.
But Ann Marie has always looked for the upside. “I was a natural fit based upon my industry,” she said. Her mother worked in the Bank of Atchison County in Rock Port, Missouri for 13 years. Banking is in her DNA.
“It was a good way to learn about how members felt about the Chamber and not being from Springfield it was a nice way to learn about the community,” says the MU graduate. “I met people that I would not have met any other way because of that volunteer service.”
As part of her work in getting members to renew their memberships, she might get an earful from unhappy members. Ann Marie viewed this member contact as an opportunity. “There might be a specific complaint and we viewed it as an opportunity to share it with the board and staff,” she recalls. They would say, ‘Let’s talk about that and make it right.’”
During this time there was debate within the Chamber about the industrial park built in response to the closing of Zenith. Many Chamber members felt it was inappropriate for public dollars to be spent on a project that competed with the private sector. She got to hear both sides of the issue.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people were losing their jobs -- many husband-and-wife teams,” she remembers. “It created quite a rift at the time that required a period of healing later.”
The Northern Missouri native continued serving on Chamber committees through the nineties and in other service organizations like the Junior League of Springfield which she chaired in 1996. Then in 2005, Lisa Officer, a CPA and board member who had served with Ann Marie on the Junior League board and years later on the board of City Utilities, asked her to join the Chamber board.
“It was not an opportunity that I had sought out, but I was delighted about the opportunity to serve,” she says.
When Ann Marie joined the board, the Chamber was responding to an economic landscape much different than 20 years earlier. To a large extent the debate about public-private partnerships like the industrial park was over. The world was shrinking and many well-paying manufacturing jobs had been lost to overseas competition. The best job opportunities now required a workforce more educated than ever before.
If Springfield was going to compete successfully, the effort would require increased collaboration between local government and the private sector. Cities that were succeeding were characterized by an educated and diverse workforce. It was important that the Chamber, local government and the education sector were all on the same page.
To that end, the Chamber got involved in electing candidates to the school board. In Missouri, the large urban school districts like Kansas City and St. Louis had dysfunctional boards, and too many of the students they were graduating were unprepared to go to work or to college. The fear was that Springfield could go the same way unless experienced professionals and civically engaged leaders who could work together were elected to the school board.
Soon after she joined the board, Ann Marie dived into the recruiting effort. She was a natural for the job, having grown up around the dinner table learning about school matters from her father who was the school superintendent in her hometown.
“Part of the process in the first place was identifying candidates who had the right professional backgrounds and approach to serve,” she says. “Secondarily, would they be willing to serve and run for election. And thirdly did they live in the Springfield school district.
“Sometimes, we might call them. Sometimes we might take them to lunch. Sometimes, it was one on one. And sometimes we would gang up on them,” she jokes. “But eventually over a period of years, people got to know that was what you were probably calling them about so be prepared. It was generally positive.”
“Since that beginning, the results have been widely noted and I think the caliber of our school board has come a long way.“
The Chamber playbook of being inclusive was followed, too. The teachers’ union whose members are highly educated have always been active in school board elections. “We made sure that the NEA was at the table,” Ann Marie remembers.
Later the Chamber partnered with the Home Builders Association of Greater Springfield to establish the Springfield Good Government Committee affiliate in which former Chamber chairs Richard Ollis and Randell Wallace were active. Later Ollis was elected to the Council. Other Chamber board members who have served in public office include Jerry Harmison, Mike Hoeman, Tom Prater and Tim Rosenbury, among others.
Ann Marie’s term as board chair began in January 2007. Her first speech to the Chamber at large happened at the annual meeting on the last Friday in January. There were over 1,000 people at the University Plaza that night. It was two weeks after the January 12 ice storm that shut down power to thousands of residents for as long as two weeks.
“I remember greeting everyone and we were all basking in the warm glow of electricity,” she says. “And I talked about my belief that our Chamber brings people together. It connects people just like electric lines. We can take that for granted but without it we are broken.”
“My belief is that our Chamber brings people together. You should never take that for granted, whether you talk about public-private partnerships, whether you talk about the nonprofit world, whether you talk about businesses working together, that recipe is a beautiful thing.”
The ice storm was a tone setter for her, she says.
Indeed, during the next year, Ann Marie focused her efforts on strengthening and forging new ties of connectivity. “I was very focused on connectivity and collaboration,” she says. Those relationships ranged from establishing The Network for Young Professionals, extending diversity efforts, and outreach to Springfield’s sister city Tlaquepaque, Mexico where she was introduced to the Mexican version of business entertainment.
The Network is a Chamber committee for members under 40. It was an effort to attract and keep young professionals in the area, rather than losing them to the larger urban markets. “We were concerned about the ‘brain drain,’” she said. Chances of attracting these people were enhanced by sponsoring special events where they could get to know each other and the community better. The program had 300 members after the first year, and now numbers 450.
Today, the most economically vibrant cities are the most diverse. In an environment rich with people from different backgrounds, ideas are cross fertilized with diverse skills. This is a recipe for high levels of entrepreneurship and new businesses. And that is where the new jobs come from.
During Ann Marie’s tenure, the Chamber marketed Springfield as a city open to entrepreneurs. Part of its job was to overcome the connotations of the word “Ozarks,” she remembers. “Branson was better known in the country than Springfield was. That impression is a deep one built on national television programs like the “Ozark Jubilee” in the 1950s (“originating from the heart of the Ozarks” went the promo) and “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the 1960s.
At the same time, Ann Marie notes, Springfield’s health systems, CoxHealth and Mercy, have actively recruited physicians from outside the United States.
On the cultural front, the Chamber had been strengthening ties with its counterpart in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. So, in March 2007 Ann Marie was called upon to visit our Sister City and commemorate the founding of “Springfield Plaza” which is a small park in the City’s upscale shopping district. Their hosts rolled out the red carpet and introduced the Springfield delegation to entertainment Mexican style. Joe Jenkins who had been instrumental in establishing the Sister City relationship told her what to expect.
“Joe had warned me and let me know that the days would be long and start later than we were accustomed to,” she says. “The hospitality would start at what we would call dinner time, but dinner would not come for a long time. There would be lots of tequila. Lots of hospitality. But they would go well into the night and start all over the next day.”
Other memories, Ann Marie recalls, were with Ozarks Technical Community College and MSU’s Roy Blunt Jordan Valley Innovation Center downtown.
For years the Chamber has sponsored its Good Morning, Springfield! event in the city at different venues to highlight a particular institution. But in keeping with its name of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Ann Marie recalls one month when the event was moved to Ozark where OTC had just built its Richwood Valley campus. She said it was especially meaningful because of the focus on job training supported by the Chamber and the geographical breadth that it represented.
In June 2007, Jordan Valley Innovation Center had its ribbon cutting. It was a concrete example of the efforts of the connectivity Ann Marie talked about at the annual meeting in January. Reconstruction of the facility on North Boonville was a vote of confidence in Downtown’s resurgence. The Chamber was delighted because the facility aligned perfectly with its efforts to promote Springfield as a place for new entrepreneurs with the University’s focus on incubators. Also, with JVIC’s mission of providing support for affiliated businesses in engineering and the life sciences, it highlighted the theme of collaboration with diverse elements of the community.
The Chamber’s work could not be accomplished without its volunteers. A perfect example was evident the day of the ribbon cutting. “I was called upon to fill in for Jim Anderson, the Chamber president, because he had volunteered to serve on the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission,” Ann Marie remembered. “I thought at the time none of this could have happened if we hadn’t all worked together. It was activities like this that have led to further visioning on what’s next for the Downtown, like opening up Jordan Creek.”
Ann Marie’s first official function as chair was addressing 1,000 members at the annual dinner in the wake of a devastating ice storm which underscored the importance of connectivity between members, between institutions and people. Her last board meeting of the year resulted in a new effort that would connect with people living on the margins – Care to Learn.
“It was typical for the outgoing board members to talk about their service,” she says, “and Morey Mechlin had prepared herself with data about the needs of poor children in the community. She talked about the necessities many children here lack in health, hunger and hygiene. Doug Pitt, who was chairman-elect, said that we can’t have that in a town where he was born and raised. “Shortly thereafter Care to Learn was started by Doug with Morey serving as its director. Now there are chapters all over the state.”
Ann Marie is proud that her year of service ended with another example of connectivity.
But while her service as chair has ended, her efforts to strengthen the community continue.
She has served in numerous other volunteer positions such as supporting passage of a Law Enforcement Sales Tax, serving as chair of the Chamber’s Springfield Business Development Corporation and serving on CU’s Board of Public Utilities.
If you are looking for Ann Marie, you won’t find her on the bench or in the stands with the spectators. She will be on the field.