CHRISTIANSBURG — The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce is settling into its new building, something organization leaders call a sign of permanence for a group that has found solid footing a decade after it was upended by scandal.
The 2,800-square-foot office sits between Christiansburg and Blacksburg. It was specifically designed and built earlier this year with the chamber’s needs in mind.
It has a 30-person boardroom, fresh fixtures and a closet full of golden shovels for photo ops.
“People kept saying you must be really proud. No. Every member here should be proud. This is their building,” chamber Executive Director Sharon Scott said. “They just allow us to have an office in their building.”
The move is the latest sign of recovery after the organization was rocked by embezzlement in 2010.
That’s when former chamber President and CEO Shane Adams was accused of misusing chamber funds. He was ultimately found guilty of three counts of embezzlement and ordered to pay fines and restitution.
The ordeal marked the beginning of a tumultuous period for the organization, which was left facing both a financial and membership crisis after the trial was over.
“They [members] felt like they had been cheated and they felt like they had been lied to,” former chamber board Chairman Robert Parks said. “And they were hurt.”
Scott took over as director of the chamber in 2013, bringing with her a plan to continue the rebuilding effort. She helped create budgets, but more importantly stuck to them, current and past board members say. She endorsed lofty membership goals and began working behind the scenes to boost county businesses.
When the Christiansburg Marketplace shopping center grew desolate, Scott took it upon herself to forge a relationship with the out-of-town owners in hopes she could nudge them toward either investing in the property or a sale. She tried to arrange Virginia Tech football tickets and sent a bottle of Amarone wine on the previous owner’s birthday.
When the past owner did reach an agreement to sell the shopping center in 2017, Scott was one of his first calls. Now, the property is getting a $53 million makeover and is attracting attention from a slew of major retailers.
“The quality of life here is amazing,” Scott said. “So when something is vacant and there’s no progress, yeah I take that personally because our economy depends on businesses as well as residents.”
Attitudes toward the chamber have changed in more recent years, as it has worked to rebuild, Parks and other chamber leaders say.
The group had 651 members at last count. Growth there has slowed recently in line with wider national trends. The chamber says it’s transitioning toward a greater focus on engagement with the members it does have, rather than the sheer size of its roster.
The chamber took out a $75,000 loan to stay afloat after the embezzlement. It has been chipping away at the debt ever since, with larger chunks at the end of each year when money is leftover. All but about $10,000 of the debt has been repaid, Scott said. The rest should be taken care of soon.
“So we’re doing great,” Henry Bass, a local business owner and an officer on the chamber’s board of directors, said. “We just about have wiped that thing out.”
With the increasingly stable financial footing, the organization was able to take steps toward its longtime goal of owning its own building.
The new office, on Laurel Street beside Gran Rodeo Mexican restaurant, is owned by Matt Kesler and Jeff Price, who is a member of the chamber’s board of directors.
Price previously said he put his property up for consideration when he heard the chamber was looking for a new space. For now, his business is leasing the property to the chamber, but with a rent-to-own agreement.
The chamber can rent for up to 10 years, and has the option to buy the space outright at any point.
“I think if you own your own building, that speaks to your staying power in the community,” Parks said.