ELKHART — When the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce was looking for a new president 13 years ago, Phil Penn offered to step in until they found somebody to replace him.
He decided to stick around until the end of this year.
“I fell in love with the job,” Penn said. He decided to ask for the full-time position, and the chamber board gave it to Penn, who’d been involved in the chamber starting in the 1960s. Before he stepped in, he’d retired after 33 years at Rieth-Riley.
Even though he’s retiring again, “we plan on staying active in the community. I’m not going to sail off into the sunset,” Penn said.
As he leaves, the leadership of the chamber will go to Kyle Hannon, who’s been there at Penn’s side for a decade. “He’ll do a good job, I know, will bring some new ideas. He’s not going to be a clone of Phil Penn, and that’s a good thing,” Penn said. “That’s why you have change in organizations, to bring fresh ideas in, new leadership.”
When Penn decided he wanted the full-time job leading the chamber, “first of all, I wanted to see us serving our members,” Penn said. “The other thing I felt strongly about is we, as a chamber and community, need to reach out to other organizations and form collaborative partnerships as much as we can.”
Looking back, Penn sees significant progress on that front. “We’re not there yet, but I think we’ve come a long way.” He cited the chamber’s role in the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County and the U.S. 31 coalition, and the chamber’s willingness to help and work with the recently formed Corporate Partnership for Economic Growth.
The job has had its difficulties. The chamber supported a proposal by Accra Pac to put a new LP gas facility in the old Whitehall building, but “the neighborhood rose up against that move.” At a public hearing, “it was a little scary,” he said.
Heading up the chamber wasn’t easy during the recession, which saw Elkhart hit 20 percent unemployment in 2009.
“It was a really interesting phenomenon. The president came to town, Mike Huckabee came to town. We had a lot of media attention. MSNBC set up shop here for a year,” Penn said.
“I’ve seen Elkhart go through this time and time again, and I’ve seen Elkhart come back time and time again. I kept telling people, ‘You know, this is not good, this is a terrible, terrible thing. But it’s not going to be permanent. We’re going to come back stronger, as we have many times in the past. We kept that positive tone, and it happened. We’re not there yet, but we’re at the point now where businesses are struggling to find good help, to find skilled help that they need,” Penn said.
“It kind of angered me a bit that we got that attention, ‘Oh, you’re so down-and-out, poor Elkhart,’ because no, that’s not who we are,” he said.
“Are we going to have tough times again? Sure we will,” he said, but that’s why the chamber and its regional partners are working to add variety to the economy.
“As long as we continue to evaluate our goals and missions,” he said, “I think the chamber will always have a role in this community.”
Looking back, he said, “The chamber has always been here for our members in business and the chamber will always be here for our members in business,” he said.
He has no concerns about the chamber board choosing Hannon to succeed him. “He understands we are here to serve our membership first and foremost, and as long as he keeps that in the forefront of his mind, everything else will fall into place,” Penn said of Hannon. “I have full confidence he’s going to do that.”
Overall, Penn said, “this has just been really a good ride. I can’t name any low points, honestly. Even during the downturn, our membership has remained stable. I think we accomplished some good things for the chamber. We received four-star accreditation” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Though he and his wife, Bonnie, will travel, “Bonnie and I love Elkhart. This is our home,” he said. He’s going to step up volunteer efforts in some areas, and “I will play my tuba more, hopefully. I’ve got some other hobbies, too, that I’ll pursue,” he said.