It would be hard to be actively involved in Lowell and not know Liz Baker’s name. For nearly 30 years, she has been the driving force behind the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce – organizing and promoting community events such as the Riverwalk Festival, Christmas Through Lowell and the Lowell Expo.
She is stepping down from the helm this spring and handing the reins to Shannon Kennedy. But before she finishes her tenure, the Chamber Board of Directors is bestowing on her an honor reserved for those who have made a lasting impact in the community: Person of the Year.
An Unexpected Career
Although born and raised in Lowell, it was really by happenstance that Liz came to the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. She had a cleaning business and was working in food service when her aunt saw a posting for a chamber job.
“I laugh about it because I am pretty sure I was the only person who applied,” Liz recalls. She was subsequently hired on as a “very part-time secretary” and went to work in the former Chamber building, that little white structure that sits at the southwest corner of Main and Jackson Streets.
She split her time between the Chamber and a job at the Lowell Area Arts Council, now known as LowellArts, and was eventually promoted to the assistant director position. It was an interesting promotion seeing that the organization did not have a director.
The Chamber apparently realized at some point that Liz was assistant to no one and made her the executive director. Around this time, the Chamber also moved to its current location on the Riverwalk.
“The city council believed in the chamber and what they were doing, and they wanted to move us,” Liz remembers. The building that currently houses the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce is owned by the city but leased to the organization.
In the years that followed, Liz lent her talent and expertise to a variety of non-profits and local causes. She was a member of Board of Directors for Schneider Manor, a chamber rep to the Lowell Community Wellness Board, a part of the Lowell Education Foundation Board and assisted with capital campaigns for local trails and LowellArts among others.
Creating Events for the Community
It is not a coincidence that many of today’s beloved community activities started after Liz became chamber director.
“When I started, the Chamber didn’t have any money,” Liz says. That made the first order of business to plan a fundraiser, and the Riverwalk Festival was born.
After some trial and error – the first festival occurred on a Labor Day weekend, a time when everyone clears out of town, the Chamber quickly learned – the current weekend in July was settled upon. While the activities have varied throughout the years, the annual event draws thousands to the downtown for shopping, kids’ activities, music and more.
But it was Expo that really put Lowell on the map. “The Expo is one of our shining stars,” Liz explains. Now in its 25th year, the Expo is a chance for businesses and organizations to share information and residents to learn more about what is offered in the community.
The original Expo had maybe 30 vendors, according to Liz, and occupied a single hallway. It was a small start to what has turned into a large event with dozens of booths filling Lowell High School, but it was enough to make an impression. “We became a model for other communities,” she says.
Christmas Through Lowell is another long-running, successful Chamber event. However, the group can’t take credit for the original idea. It was initially developed by local crafters as a way to spend time while family members were away during the opening weekend of firearm deer hunting season. After a dozen years, they turned over the event to the Chamber to organize and promote.
Under the Chamber’s direction, Christmas Through Lowell has grown from 19 participating stops in 2004 to 61 in 2022. While supporting local businesses and artisans, it also offers shoppers a unique opportunity to purchase a wide variety of handcrafted goods for the holidays.
Recession and COVID-19: Challenging Times
When asked what has been most challenging about her time at the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, Liz points to two events: the 2008/2009 recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Before the recession in 2009, we were filling up storefronts,” Liz says. During that downturn, some spaces emptied out, but the downtown rebounded as the economy did.
The COVID-19 pandemic posed different challenges. While some businesses closed for good, most were able to weather the storm. However, it was not without some pointed disagreements among people about how to navigate the period.
“Our membership stayed strong, but mentally, it was challenging,” Liz notes.
Ultimately, Liz says her focus has always been on supporting local merchants to create a strong downtown. A vibrant downtown has benefits beyond those for the merchants located there. It can attract new residents, visitors and economic growth that enhance the entire community.
“The philosophy for me is that the downtown is the nucleus,” she says. “It draws all the outside areas in.”
To Alaska and Beyond
If she had her way, Liz would ride off quietly into the sunset. She is quick to note that many of her accomplishments were simply a part of her job and that she had an army of volunteers who helped.
Despite not wanting any praise or fanfare, she is humbled to be chosen as Person of the Year. She says that she shares this honor with all those who have worked tirelessly alongside her to make the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce what it is today.
Looking to the future, Liz and her husband have a bucket-list trip planned to Alaska, and then she would like to spend some time on various projects at home.
Of course, she won’t be disappearing from the community and will also stay on as a member of the Showboat VI Board. And that’s good – because it wouldn’t be Lowell without Liz Baker.
Hats off to Liz! Job well done young Lady.
What an amazing example of service to our community. Truly a treasure–one of a kind. We have been so blessed by her efforts. Wish her well in retirement!