ELY - One of the region’s most influential tourism promoters is retiring. Longtime Ely Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Linda Fryer announced officially this week that she’ll be leaving the organization she’s managed for the past 25 years, leaving behind an institution that’s grown tremendously and won statewide acclaim for its professionalism and its creative promotions.
“She’s been really good for Ely, and for Minnesota tourism overall,” said Tim Campbell, who worked closely with Fryer in his job as Northeast Director of Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism agency.
Under Fryer’s leadership, the chamber has seen remarkable growth in membership, from 70 members when Fryer first took the helm of the organization in 1988, to over 300 members today. That growth is due, in large part, to the growing reputation of the Ely Chamber as one of the most effective chambers of commerce in the entire region. Some of the chamber’s promotional efforts have only furthered that reputation, particularly the series of April Fools Day promotions that have attracted national media attention. Fryer says the first such promotion— which involved a press release stating that Canada had purchased the town of Ely— remains her favorite, and probably the one that drew the most attention.
As an idea, it was one that could have flopped, but the timing was perfect, the execution was flawless, and it put Ely in the national spotlight just six weeks ahead of the Minnesota fishing opener. Subsequent promotions, including a fictitious bid to bring the 2016 Olympics to Ely, also drew substantial media coverage.
At the same time, Fryer managed to chart effective responses when Ely found its way into the national news for the kind of things that send shivers up the spines of most chamber directors— like the 1999 Boundary Waters blowdown, the massive Pagami Creek fire, the Iraq war resolution, and the terroristic threats made against BWCAW visitors by a group of young Ely men back in 2007.
Fryer said getting accurate information out to chamber members and to the public was key to managing the message during periods of intense media coverage.
“It comes down to the chamber board. I just tried to keep them informed, and to put together talking points so they had the facts and we all had the same message.”
At other times, Fryer said, the best reaction was no reaction. “Sometimes, you can just add fuel to the fire,” she said.
While Fryer was effective at handling media firestorms, she was, perhaps, even better at avoiding the kind of internal controversies that could have weakened the chamber as an organization and diverted energy in unproductive ways.
“Her ability to weave through the minefields was tremendous,” said Paul Schurke, a longtime chamber member. “She had a remarkable ability to keep things civil even in potentially volatile situations. I remember coming out of lots of contentious chamber meetings and we’d all look at each other and say: ‘Thank god, for Linda.’”
With a chamber membership and board made up of individuals with strong, and sometimes differing, opinions, Fryer is lauded by many for her ability to work with all sides and maintain an even keel when lesser mortals could easily have been flustered. “Linda took the 250-foot view of her position,” said longtime chamber member and former Ely Mayor Roger Skraba. “She did a fantastic job of staying neutral. I have to give her a lot of credit for that. She really held together a lot of differing personalities.”
Campbell said that’s a reflection of the professionalism that Fryer brought to the job. “She understands that the chamber does not belong to her. It belongs to the community,” said Campbell. “Chamber executives can get themselves in trouble when they forget that. But Linda’s always taken a measured response, and she’s a good mediator.”
Fryer’s reputation grew over the years, and spread well beyond the borders of Ely. “As a mayor, I was in St. Paul all the time, and heard nothing but positive things about the job Linda and the chamber did,” said Skraba. “In fact, I never heard a disparaging word.”
Campbell said tourism officials around the state have reacted with heartfelt disappointment at Fryer’s announcement. “She’s really done a lot of good for Ely and for Minnesota tourism, particularly in the Northeast,” he added. In fact, tourism officials made their appreciation of Fryer’s work official last year, when they named her a “Friend of Tourism, the most prestigious tourism honorific in the state.
All agree that Fryer’s announcement leaves the chamber with big shoes to fill. “I’d say they’re the biggest mukluks on the planet,” said Schurke.
Chamber board members are just now beginning the process of identifying the qualities they’ll seek in Fryer’s replacement. “The chamber is going to have to do some soul-searching right now,” said Skraba.
As for Fryer, she’s looking forward to having more time to do the very things she’s spent 25 years touting. With a few health issues cropping up over the years, Fryer said she needs to take the time now to do the things she wants to do while she still can. “Now, I want to be Dorothy Molter,” she said.