KANKAKEE — When the phrase “business as usual” is uttered, it normally has a negative context attached.
But for Ashley Villarreal, the just-hired executive director of the Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce, “business as usual” means a return to calm, a return to normalcy, and a return to the time when terms such as COVID-19, pandemic and shelter-in-place were foreign to the vocabularies of most.
While attempting to bring calm and normalcy to Kankakee County businesses, the 36-year-old Bourbonnais woman — a lifelong Kankakee County resident — will work to bring much-needed stability to the chamber as well.
Her first day with the chamber was May 24.
Having experienced its own upheaval through an unusual stretch of change in leadership — Villarreal being the chamber’s fourth executive director since spring 2020 — the organization is seeking stability at the same time it is seeking growth.
Board president John Keigher said Villarreal was far from the only applicant. He said the chamber received 20 applications.
He noted he knew Villarreal from his previous stint with the United Way of Kankakee and Iroquois Counties. Villarreal was the UW’s operations manager from July 2007 to May 2012.
“She’s boots on the ground. She is action,” he said. A multi-tasker, Villarreal will roll up her sleeves and get the work accomplished, Keigher said.
And coming out of this business-halting pandemic, Keigher said it is more important than ever to have a person at the helm who can interact with businesses large and small to gain their needs and help them prosper.
“Businesses need people walking through their doors again. We have a lot of events planned and we are real excited about getting people re-engaged. She’s going to help our region get kick-started,” he said.
While Villarreal is committed to being one of those key community point people for years to come, Keigher said that was one of his and the board’s focuses.
“First and foremost we have to have stability at this position. She’s in it for the long haul. This is not a ‘pass through’ job for her,” he said.
KANKAKEE COUNTY ROOTS
A 2002 graduate of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, Villarreal earned a communication studies degree in 2006 from Olivet Nazarene University. In 2008, she completed her master’s degree in organizational leadership.
In addition to working at the United Way, Villarreal was most recently a forensic interviewer with the Child Network in Bradley from November 2019 to gaining the chamber position.
Like Keigher, Villarreal said bringing stability to the chamber is a top priority.
“I’ve gotten that question a lot,” she acknowledged. “I’m here. I’ve come from the non-profit world and I have event-planning history. Kankakee County is home,” she said.
She said the chamber’s recent history has been well chronicled. She said previous leaders left for their own reasons — some for other jobs and others for family reasons — but she is confident this will be her position for years to come.
“This position fits my wheelhouse. I definitely have gotten this question. I love events and my first thought for my career was event planning.”
In a world now thirsting for public gatherings, for coming together, Villarreal believes the intersection of herself and the chamber could not have come at a more suitable juncture.
LOCAL SUPPORT FOR BUSINESS
“People are excited to get out. For businesses’ bottom line, things need to get happening,” she said.
That fact also means the region’s shoppers need to support local retailers, local professionals.
“We all know it’s easy to get online and add to a shopping cart,” Villarreal said. “But supporting our local businesses is so important. These are the one helping make our community. Our businesses need you.”
And while the world live these past 12 to 15 months through virtual worlds of Zoom meetings, Villarreal believes people are excited to return to normal.
Each business will set its own course and determine not only its comfort level, but that of its customers.
“These are still COVID times. Just being here to listen I believe helps,” she said. “Everything will be based on that’s businesses comfort level.
“... It’s one day at a time. I think we’ve all learned it’s the little things in life that we appreciate. COVID is lifting, but I do believe COVID taught us balance.”