A change in leadership at the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce (GRCC) has some in the community hopeful for a détente in the bruised relationship between the chamber and the Reston Community Center (RCC).
On July 15, N. Joseph "Joe" Watson was sworn in as the chamber's newest chairman during the organization's board of directors installation ceremony. With a background of fostering diversity and cooperation in the workplace, Watson comes to his position promising to "create a wave" of philanthropy and community dedication from all members of the area's business community. "I want to get folks engaged, focused on giving back to their community," Watson said.
In his installation address, Watson again stressed his appreciation for the entire Reston community. "Reston has a history with a rich sense of community," Watson said. "It is a community, that is known for valuing family and operating by its founding credo of 'live, work, play.' The depth of this spirit can be seen in the deference that the citizens and business owners show towards the community and its initiatives."
Many Reston residents, including its founder Robert Simon, are hoping that Watson will help rekindle the relationship between the two community organizations. The recent RCC governance debate and the ongoing dialogue over a proposed RCC-funded skate park, highlighted a long-simmering feud between the two bodies.
The relationship was already strained when Michael Horwatt, the chamber's appointed representative to the special governance panel submitted a June 30 memo lambasting the results of the panel even before its final report had been submitted. The draft final report outlined the recommendations for changes in the way the RCC Board of Governors is selected, including the addition of a presumably more business friendly Dulles Corridor district, mail and electronic balloting and the formation of a new advisory committee to oversee the RCC.
"I think (that memo) did leave a bad taste in our mouths, in some ways because there were many parts of the whole process that had unanimous votes," said Ruth Overton, the RCC board president. "It appears that unless we agreed on all of his demands, there would have been no way to appease his constituency and I am sorry about that."
WATSON SAID HE IS looking forward to working closely with the RCC in the coming weeks and months. "I am pleased with the relationship we have enjoyed with the RCC," he said on Monday. "I have a different view than most. I really do view the community of Reston — both the business and residential sides — as one community, like a family."
Watson compared the current relationship of the RCC and the GRCC with that of an extended family at Thanksgiving dinner. "In a family, there are going to be disagreements and differences of opinion," Watson said. "It always gets through the difficult patches and comes back stronger because they learn and grow from the emotional discussions, dialogue and debate."
With nearly of 40 years of history between the two respective organizations, it is only natural to have a few "growing pains," Watson said, adding that both the chamber and the community center continue to mature and evolve. Throughout his career, Watson said the best relationships have been crafted out of difficult discussions. "For 20 years, however, we have built a community together that is the envy of many a community inside and outside the beltway," Watson, a resident of Cascades, said. "We will both come through this better, stronger and more focused and that is not misplaced optimism."
The new chairman has brought a "buy Reston first" philosophy to his one-year stint. Watson wants to open up opportunities for all businesses to contribute to the community and to one another. "It's just as critical that we help our business neighbors, as well," he said Monday.
White praised Watson as a "charismatic leader" who runs his business with passion. "He is really feels strongly about the chamber's nurturing quality and I know he will be talking a lot about that and he also really believes that the chamber can give back to our community."
"The Reston Chamber is our community. We have the capacity to make it as warm, inviting and nurturing as our friends who live, work and play here have for almost 40 years now," Watson said. "I look forward to working with all of you to fulfill the 'promise' of a fully integrated chamber focuses on 'members first.'"
WHILE STANDING BY Horwatt's memo which had the chamber's "blessing," Tracey White, the chamber president and CEO, said she was heartened by the movement of some members of the panel in understanding that the business community was looking for a voice in the process.
"These conversations are always difficult and change is always hard and sometimes it is not handled as easily as people might hope, but the conversations, in some ways, were fruitful," White said.
White said the relationship between the RCC and the GRCC is "good" and that their "day-to-day working relationship is still as it has been which is very nice." The chamber president added that she was confident that everyone on the panel would agree that these discussions of business involvement on the RCC board will not stop "once that report is issued or the second the Board of Governors hears it or the Board of Supervisors hears it."
It is a conversation, White said, that has been going on for a long time, and "it is conversation that will have a life beyond this process and these open conversations about how things run in any community are positive."
Smith thought the GRCC-sponsored memo was "unfortunate." "Michael Horwatt kind of screwed things up by publishing his little piece," said RCC board member and governance panelist Terry Smith. "It left a very bitter pill with me. I was not happy at all with it and obviously Bob Simon was not."
Smith, who is writing the final report, said he had no interest in including anything that Horwatt wrote in the final report which is currently being circulated among panel members. "It can stand on its own and it can stand separately, but it will never become part of the report and as far as I am concerned, it will never become part of the discussion," he said.
AS CHAIRMAN FOR the next 12 months, Watson has made it one of his priorities for chamber members to reach back into the community where they work and, in many cases, live. Watson says he is looking to create opportunities, or "unique events," where businesses and companies can spend a day or an afternoon helping to build a low-income house, tutor local children or clean a vacant lot. "Given time constraints we all face, it is very difficult to make long-standing commitments, but I can tell you, that there is a deep desire among the business community to give back," he said. "My challenge was issued just last week and I have already received half a dozen emailed ideas. They want to be helpful and they want to participate more wholly in the community. Now, we are hopeful that our family in the community will join us."
Overton is also hopeful. Having watched many different chairmen come and go at the chamber, Overton said that an individual leader has a "great deal" of effect on the overall tone of the organization. "I am hoping that with the change in the leadership, it will be a much better relationship. I am very hopeful of that. Besides giving back to the community," the RCC president said.
Denny Kern, the RCC executive director, called Watson a "great guy." Kern said he came to know the new chamber head in January 2002 after Watson led an effort that brought a new element to the annual RCC-sponsored Martin Luther King program. "He designed and brought in various people from the business community to have a day-long program here with middle and high school students," Kern said of Watson. "It was very impressive. He designed it and it was really good."
"I would also wish that many of the chamber people would be pleased with the different recommendations that the committee will put forth to the board and my expectation is that the board will probably accept most, if not all, of the recommendations to the board," Overton said. "I would hope they would be pleased that we have made a real effort to include people in the business community that before now had been unable to participate in the preference poll in the past."
White agreed, to an extent, that individual chairman have an effect on the character of the GRCC. "Every chairman has their own vision for how they would like to see their year go. The underpinnings of the chamber and the structure of what we do as an organization stays the same but the chairman really brings enthusiasm and leadership and is really a motivator to members to get active and get involved and to set forth the organization's basic vision," White said. "Everybody has a different tone and tenor. Linda [Mallison's] was certainly membership driven, bringing in people to the organization and making it vibrant and, since she is a commercial developer, looking at the basic economy here in the Dulles Corridor. And Joe has a different perspective looking at creating a wonderful environment — member to member — with what we have right now."