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Kalispell Chamber embarks on new leadership

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | November 15, 2020 12:00 AM

As the Kalispell business community looks to the future and what lies beyond the pandemic, it will have a new leader to help navigate that path forward.

After 24 years at the helm of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, Joe Unterreiner has passed the baton to the Chamber’s new leader, Lorraine Clarno.

“It is just truly my honor and privilege to be stepping into Joe’s very, very big shoes,” Clarno said Thursday as she introduced herself to the Flathead County commissioners.

Unterreiner has been a fixture of the local business community, guiding the city’s industries through transformative developments such as the construction of the U.S. 93 bypass, unprecedented population growth and, most recently, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the 1990s, he’s been at the forefront of advocating for small businesses in Kalispell and the surrounding valley, lobbying for legislation in Helena and Washington, D.C., collaborating to foster STEM careers through the Bioscience Alliance and, this summer, urging Glacier National Park officials to open the Going-to-the-Sun Road to help the tourist economy weather the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

Unterreiner said he plans on staying in the area and taking on a new position close by, but has yet to reveal exactly where he’s headed.

“What he and this community have built in terms of the Chamber is just remarkable, and it’s very special,” Clarno said.

Though it’s certainly a tall order to fill Unterreiner’s role in the community, Clarno believes she has what it takes to further that legacy and guide the city’s business sector through the new challenges that lie ahead.

Clarno said she feels her experience and the opportunities in Kalispell are a “perfect match.”

Prior to moving to Kalispell this fall, Clarno served for 26 years in Chamber of Commerce management in Beaverton, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. For the past 20 years, she held the CEO role in the Chamber there.

Her career has not only been lengthy, but also, she thinks, very relevant to the present situation in Kalispell. Clarno gained important experience dealing with some of the extremes of the challenges Kalispell currently faces, such as population spikes and COVID-19 restrictions.

When she moved to Beaverton, for instance, there was a population of about 30,000 people. In the next 25 years, it ballooned into a city of more than 100,000.

“I have seen the upsides, and I have seen the downsides,” Clarno said. “I hope that I can work with you (the county commissioners), and the City Council and the other stakeholders in the community to maybe avoid some of those pitfalls.

“This community and area is just poised for some remarkable potential, and we want to do it smart, and we want to make sure we’re doing it together,” she added.

Clarno also brings experience from seeing firsthand some of the worst financial “carnage” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said she considers the ongoing impacts of the virus as the No. 1 issue facing Kalispell entrepreneurs. She wants to use her outside perspective to help local businesses avoid the worst-case scenario that has played out elsewhere — like Oregon — where the governor’s anticipated three-week business closure in March turned into almost four months of total lockdown.

But Clarno also recognized her prior experience may not perfectly map onto the reality in her new community, and she relishes the chance to get to know Kalispell and everything that makes it unique.

“I have lots to learn,” she noted. “For the first year, I’m basically going to be a sponge.”

Clarno expects to start by taking her cues from the Chamber’s 26-person board of directors, and then, once she has her bearings, get started on a five-year strategic plan for the future of Kalispell businesses.

That plan likely will incorporate components such as “how to do business in a COVID and post-COVID economy,” sustainable population growth and accompanying infrastructure, and tourism.

“She will be a huge asset for the community,” Unterreiner promised.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at (406)-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.