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Louisville Courier Journal ‘Best of our business community’ 1si CEO unites companies in pandemic

by Emma Austin

Louisville Courier Journal, December 17, 2020

Editor’s note: As we flip the calendar to 2021, The Courier Journal put together a list of 12 notable individuals who are committed to the advancement of Louisville. They include social justice advocates, business leaders, coaches, health care professionals, restaurateurs, arts leaders and more. 

This is one in a series of 12 people who are doing their best to help make Kentuckiana even better in the new year. 

Wendy Dant Chesser always hoped to be back home again in Southern Indiana.

Her career took her away from Jeffersonville where she was raised, not long after she graduated from Indiana University Southeast in 1991. She moved further north up U.S. 31 with each new job opportunity, eventually ending up in Berrien County, Michigan.

Then, in 2012, the president’s position opened at One Southern Indiana, the economic development organization and chamber of commerce for Clark and Floyd counties.

“I get a phone call from my mother, and she says, ‘I think it’s time you come home,’” Dant Chesser told The Courier Journal in a recent phone interview.

Eight years after returning home, Dant Chesser, 51, found herself in the difficult position of trying to leading businesses in her hometown and neighboring areas through the downturn caused by coronavirus pandemic.

Dant Chesser, the chamber’s president and CEO, said it became clear in early March the COVID-19 pandemic would impact the local economy. There were major event cancellations and shutdowns as everybody stayed home.

“I will never want to live through a time like that again, but it showed absolutely the best of our business community in Southern Indiana,” she said.

She and her 12-member team at One Southern Indiana came up with a plan involving three tracks.

The first, called 1si Connects, involved sending surveys to the chamber’s members to see what businesses needed and what they had to offer and then connecting those resources.

For instance, one major need was hand sanitizer, which was in short supply in early spring as people scrambled to stock up. One Southern Indiana learned one of its partners, Huber’s Orchard, Winery & Vineyards, was manufacturing hand sanitizer, so it connected Huber’s distillery with Formwood Industries, a Jeffersonville plywood supplier in need of the product at its manufacturing facility.

“Nobody knew exactly what to do, but everybody who had something wanted to do something,” she said.

A second prong was called 1si Calls, which included daily Facebook Live events beginning in mid-March offering education on how businesses could adapt to changing circumstances. The group led interviews with experts on a variety of topics: how to market a business without being face-to-face with consumers; best practices for payroll and human resources; and how to keep an office safe while employees work from home.

One of Dant Chesser’s favorite sessions was with a Floyds Knobs port-a-potty engineer who talked about how to sanitize a business space. “Because you really expect the port-a-potty guy to know about sanitation, and he did. It was one of our better events,” she said.

The third part of the relief effort included a loan program that provided assistance to more than 120 small businesses. The funding came from community partners, including the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County and the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana.

By late June, the effort raised nearly $1.2 million, which was distributed in forgivable or zero-interest loans to small businesses to keep their doors open.

Ellis Taylor, owner of Taylor’s Cajun Meat Co. in New Albany said he got a loan through the program. It prevented him from having to cut hours for his five employees because of meat-plant shutdowns.

“It’s helped out tremendously,” Taylor said. “Being in the chamber, we have connections to other businesses, and we can all help each other out. It’s such a blessing to be in the chamber and be a part of it all.”

But One Southern Indiana hasn’t always been in such high standing with the community, said Matt Hall, executive vice president.

“When Wendy first came here, the organization frankly was not in the best of shape,” Hall said. “We had some financial challenges; we had challenges with membership and investment.”

Hall, who knew Dant Chesser from her work in the Indiana Department of Commerce, said he was excited when he heard she was interviewing for the president’s position. Eight years later, he says she’s turned the organization around.

“I think Wendy saw the potential for this organization,” Hall said. “I think she saw the impact that this organization could have on this community.”

One Southern Indiana’s response to the pandemic, which came out of a brainstorming session the second week of March, earned the organization statewide recognition in July as the 2020 Indiana Chamber of the Year.

Dant Chesser said she was moved when she heard the award announced on a Zoom call.

“Our team has never deserved it more,” she said, adding they “made a big deal about it for a minute or so” but soon got back to work.

The organization’s response to the community’s needs was immediate, but it wasn’t a total breeze. Dant Chesser said her low point hit the first week of April.

“Even though we had a lot of stuff going on, I just had no confidence that any of it was going to work,” she said. “I’m working from my dining room table, so I didn’t have facial or nonverbal feedback to tell me whether or not this was any good.”

About that time, she tuned into a webinar hosted by the International Economic Development Council: “A Ten-Point Action Plan for Economic Developers.”

Richard Florida, founder of advisory firm Creative Class Group, and Steven Pedigo, director of research for the firm, shared their plan, telling the developers to think about what their role would be after the pandemic, and Dant Chesser had her moment of clarity.

“I had to think and look beyond the pandemic,” she said. “Because it had never occurred to me that life was going to resume beyond this pandemic — you know, I was just in my low point — and it changed my whole perspective.”

As Dant Chesser puts it, “economic development doesn’t happen unless you’ve got a good product to sell,” and the pandemic hasn’t changed the fact that One Southern Indiana still has a good product. Some of the selling points: available land, a good tax climate and being part of the Louisville metro area, she said.

As One Southern Indiana moves into 2021, the CEO said she sees the organization providing more direction for local businesses through training and education opportunities.

Additionally, Dant Chesser said she’d like to build on the the chamber’s experience in managing small business lending.

“I do have some growth plans for our organization; whether we can get them all accomplished in 2021 sort of depends on how the first six months go, but I do think there’s some opportunity for us on the back end,” she said.

Reach Emma Austin at eaustin@gannett.com or on Twitter at @emmacaustin.

Bio Box

  • Name: Wendy Dant Chesser
  • Position: President and CEO of One Southern Indiana
  • Age: 51
  • Hometown: Jeffersonville, Indiana

What she says about 2021: “I feel good that we’re going to adjust just fine to those unknowns on how cyclical reactions are going to affect our local economy. We’re going to have to stay on our toes and make sure that we continue to adjust in the most positive way for those companies who are going to struggle over the next couple years.”

Why we’ll be watching Wendy Dant Chesser in 2021:

  • Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana for eight years, led the the 2020 Indiana Chamber of the Year.
  • She and her team will work to address lingering effects the pandemic has had on the local economy in 2021.
  • Dant Chesser plans to draw on One Southern Indiana’s experience managing small business lending during the pandemic to provide more assistance to businesses going forward.

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