After 30 years at the helm, Exeter Chamber CEO Sandy Blankenship will retire at the end of January
EXETER – After 30 years of service and 15 years as CEO of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce, Sandy Blankenship has just two more weeks to take it all in. In 2021 the Exeter Chamber is celebrating their 100-year anniversary of being incorporated, but they’ll be doing so with a new CEO as Blankenship is set to retire at the end of January.
Exeter looks a lot different compared to when Blankenship first joined the chamber in 1991, and also when she became CEO in 2005. According to Blankenship, one of the biggest turning points for the city began in the late 1990s when the murals made their way into town. Exeter had just experienced a major cold weather spell that vanished a lot of the orange harvest, which had a vastly negative effect on the community. Shortly after, the mural project was first commissioned by the city council and then handed to the chamber. They then formulated a committee of people from the community to help develop and contribute to the mural. Beginning with the Orange Harvest mural in 1996 at the southeast corner of Pine and E streets, the mural project was like a shot in the arm to the town. It caused community pride to swell while luring more people and businesses to downtown.
“People want to do business in Exeter or come and visit. A lot of that has to do with all of the promotion and advertising that we’ve done while trying to project the image we want,” Blankenship said. “We want to be a destination and want people to feel like they want to be here. I believe that has happened.”
City promotion was a major aspect of Blankenship’s job as CEO, which became increasingly more difficult over the years. Towards the beginning of her tenure, the chamber did all of the advertising for the community and the city contributed around $40,000 a year to help. The growth of social media coupled with city budgeting issues caused the city’s contribution to drop by nearly 90%. As a result, the chamber was forced to let go of one of their two part time employees. That left Blankenship with only one other employee. They’ve been able to manage well but it creates a bind when one person is sick or if there is an event that forces one or both of them out of the office.
Blankenship’s final year as CEO was arguably the most unique of them all, as the chamber is still figuring out ways to survive the pandemic. The chamber has not been able to have all of their fundraisers, including Fall Festival which is their biggest event of the year. The full effect has yet to be seen, and will be strongly reliant on how the local businesses are able to recover. Blankenship deems that the effects will be ongoing even when the pandemic ends since they are being forced to survive off of memberships, and some businesses won’t be able to renew.
Nonetheless, Blankenship’s three decades with the chamber have been filled with an exhaustive list of accomplishments. Near the top of the list were the free concert in the park series that used to take place at Exeter City Park. For several years, the chamber helped coordinate the series in partnership with KJUG radio station to bring the biggest names in country music to Exeter. There were times where more than 5,000 people crammed into the park to see artists such as Lady Antebellum and Lonestar in 2008, Tracy Lawrence in 2009, Jerrod Nieman in 2010 and Joe Nichols in 2011.
Before the first concert in the park, Blankenship and the chamber were brainstorming ways to capitalize on the droves of people planning to come into town, to let them know about everything Exeter has to offer. In partnership with The Sun-Gazette Newspaper, that led to the annual membership guide and visitor directory. Over the years it has evolved into something that Blankenship is extremely proud of, and the chamber still publishes nearly 5,000 copies a year. They are distributed to residents and visitors on mural tours and other various events around town.
After hitting the 30-year mark in her career and the chamber reaching the 100-year mark of incorporation, Blankenship believes that it is officially time to call it quits. She’s looking forward to retirement life and spending time with family, but cherishes all that she was able to accomplish in the role.
“I’ve considered it an honor to be given this important job and I hope that I have made some good improvements and made someone’s life better in the community” she said. “That’s what I’d like to say [that I’m], leaving the community better than when I came in.”