Ask someone who knows where the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce is, and you’ll be directed to the red, white and blue Consumer Fuels Building on Lower Main Street, at which point, you may continue to wonder where the Chamber of Commerce is.

The Chamber moved into the building last year. The executive functions and the organization’s visitor center — until recently split between an upper floor and a store front across Main Street — have been consolidated in the new space. The high-ceilinged, light-filled room is welcoming. Plants occupy the large plate-glass windows. The room is ringed in displays of brochures on local attractions.

From the outside, however, the Chamber is nearly invisible, and though the historic character of the building practically guarantees that there will never be a big sign out front, the organization, under the guidance of a new executive director, is trying hard to make itself known. And, to a certain extent, it appears to be working.

Mention the Chamber in Belfast and you’re likely to hear glowing praise for Janet Dutson, who in the relatively short time since she signed on as executive director in November, has been turning heads in the community. Dutson, who served executive roles in the Camden Rockport Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, is the Belfast Chamber’s first full-time executive director.

In March, the organization launched a new Web site. The site appears at the top of the list of Google search results for “Belfast, Maine,” as it did before the new site was launched, but Dutson and company believe the content is more useful and complete than its predecessor.

The second edition of Belfast Bay & Beyond, the Chamber’s magazine-style area guide, recently came off the presses in a run of 35,000 copies. The 2009 edition of the magazine, which the Chamber distributes to area businesses, visitor centers, AAA offices and airports, and sends by mail upon request, ran out in November. Next year, Dutson said, the plan is to print 50,000.

In May, the Chamber plans to host its first “Good Life Fest” at the Belfast Armory. The event, billed as celebrating “local foods, good health and the green home,” will feature, according to an announcement on the Chamber’s Web site, 45 exhibitors, demonstrations, workshops, music and shopping.

In keeping with the times, the organization now boasts a YouTube channel and a Facebook page, for which Dutson said she hopes to enlist additional administrators from around the region to post entries.

“Someone from Searsport, an arts person, a farmer, whatever,” she said. “When the revenues aren’t there to purchase the message, you have to do it in alternative ways.”

Low revenues are a function of low membership and lack of outside funds — two areas with which the Chamber has always struggled, and Dutson said she hopes to improve.

Today the Chamber has 300 members and a $190,000 operating budget. Dutson said there are another 741 businesses in the region that aren’t connected with the Chamber.

The membership figures are a far cry from the goal set by the Chamber in 2008 when the organization claimed a goal of 500 members by 2010, yet Dutson appears to have energized the Chamber in ways that make the numbers seem less important.

Charles Geary, owner of Harrigan’s Seafood Company, a start-up wholesale and retail shellfish vendor based on the Belfast waterfront, recently began advertising with the Chamber.

“They’ve been promoting the daylights out of us, making sure that people know we’re in town,” he said. “…They reached out to us and that was really important to us as a new business.”

A full-page for Harrigan’s Seafood Company graces the back cover of the current issue of Belfast Bay & Beyond.

“I don’t want to say [Janet Dutson] is a knight in shining armor, but she’s started a real good vibe for the Chamber that makes me think a change is happening,” he said.

As a new director, Dutson said her work has been easier with respect to new businesses because they don’t have a history with the Chamber. With older businesses she hopes to enlist, by contrast, Dutson said she sometimes has to contend with slights that occurred before her time.

One of the first things she did as executive director was to survey other chambers of commerce in the Midcoast and talk to local businesses about the Belfast Area Chamber.

“There’s a lot of history and people have deep memories,” she said.

Five years ago, the Chamber was in danger of becoming irrelevant. Several past and present board members characterized the organization as lacking stability. It was run by volunteers, and the focus was almost exclusively, through the visitor center, on travel and tourism.

The catalyst for change came in 2006 with “Creating Vibrancy in Belfast, Maine,” a city-commissioned study that listed a strong chamber of commerce among its top recommendations. Chamber officials made an appeal to the city for funding to hire an executive director, and the City Council agreed, initially pledging $75,000 per year.

The money came with the requirement that the Chamber enlarge its focus to include economic development, and that the group become self-sufficient in short order. To encourage the second point, the city began reducing the contribution after the second year with the intent of withdrawing support entirely within several years.

Using the city funding, the Chamber hired former Bucksport Chamber of Commerce President Dana Mosher. Mosher wanted to regionalize the Chamber, which as he recalls, was entrenched in downtown Belfast. The volunteers who had been running the organization were receptive, Mosher said, but branching out was difficult.

“These guys were very committed to the Chamber,” he said. “They worked hard at it, but they realized they needed to have a person to lead. They realized they needed to make big changes if they were going to grow and meet the needs of the community.”

During Mosher’s 10-month tenure, the Chamber hosted the first National BoatBuilding Challenge — the name was changed this year to Belfast Harbor Fest — and served as a catalyst for the annual Maine Celtic Celebration. Mosher left to take a job at Camp CaPella, leaving a list of recommendations on how to regionalize the Chamber. His impression of the Chamber today is that it has become a stronger organization.

“Personally, I’d like to think I had something to do with that,” he said.

John Burgess succeeded Mosher, initially as interim executive director, then as permanent director in 2008. In the year that followed the Chamber widened its scope to encompass what Burgess described as the “five major economies” of the region: travel and tourism, health care, education, arts and culture, and retail. Burgess said there was also consideration given to economic development in light manufacturing.

A cursory look at the advertisements in the 2010 edition of Belfast Bay & Beyond reveals that most are still for lodging, gifts and tourist attractions. But a handful of other announcements in the magazine — for Ace Window Cleaning, athenahealth, Lincolnville Communications, Mathews Brothers, Community Fuels, Waldo County General Hospital and the University of Maine Hutchinson Center — reflect some of the economies of staying put.

On pursuing the non-tourist economies, Dutson is quick to point out a feature of the new Web site called “Start your business here.” The section includes demographics of Belfast and Searsport, information on local tax incentives and permitting procedures, and contact information for town officials.

In September 2009, Burgess stepped down specifically to make way for a new, full-time director. Though Burgess said he was often available on a full-time basis, his term as executive director was technically a part-time position.

While the Chamber appears to be making headway in the Belfast area, Dutson admitted that the organization was just beginning to reach out to neighboring communities, and that these had mostly been along the coast. Early efforts to reach out have focused on Searsport and Dutson hopes to branch out further over time, particularly to the north.

Towns to the south of Belfast, she noted, are served by the Camden Rockport Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, and further south the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce. The northern and western parts of the county, however, don’t have another chamber of commerce in close proximity, she said.

Winterport Area Business Association President Bernie Littlefield said his group had not had any regular contact with either the Belfast Area Chamber or the next-closest chamber of commerce in Bangor. “We’ve been concentrating on membership in town,” he said.

In the western part of Waldo County, the Chamber has hosted several events in collaboration with Unity College. One of these, an eight-candidate gubernatorial debate, is scheduled to be held April 26. Unity College Vice President for College Advancement Rob Constantine said the Chamber and the college were a good match because both were at similar places in their development.

“The Chamber for a lot of years was not as effective as it could have been,” he said. “Now there’s a buzz about it.” Constantine said Unity College is experiencing a similar upswing.

Constantine was chosen as president of the Chamber’s board of directors this year — the first from outside the coastal communities. As he recalled, the Chamber began reaching out to the western part of the county around a year and a half ago. “The feedback they got was that [the work of the Chamber] doesn’t benefit the area,” he said.

Constantine said it may be some time before the Chamber has a strong presence in the inland communities, and that to do so will require the Chamber to be stronger along the coast.

Dutson said marketing the brand identity of Belfast and the surrounding region — another recommendation from the Vibrancy Report — will continue to be a priority for the Chamber. Doing this successfully, she said, means figuring out how to tell the stories of the area.

Dutson said she could imagine alternative energy manufacturing coming to the region. She also sees opportunities to draw more tourism during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. If the proposed Civic Center were built in Belfast, Dutson said she could imagine the city functioning as a kind of “campus” for large events like the PopTech! conference in Camden.

The Chamber recently became a participant in the debate over the proposed Belfast Civic Center after Cindy Harnden, who handles membership and events services at the Chamber, reported at a City Council meeting that the Chamber had fielded calls from large groups looking for a venue in Belfast.

According to Dutson, one of these was for the Maine Farmers Market Convention, held at the Hutchinson Center in February and attended by around 100 people. Dutson said, among others, she had been in contact with the Ocean Energy Institute about a conference that could include 250 to 500 people.

“Two hundred fifty people is what the Hutchinson Center can handle. Then there’s Point Lookout, which is a great location,” she said. “It all depends what they’re looking for. If they have 500 people who want to sit audience-style, that’s where we have a challenge.”

Dutson said the Chamber is still committed to becoming financially independent of the city. The organization is requesting $25,000 from the city of Belfast in the upcoming budget cycle. To become totally independent, she said, the organization will have to attract new members and raise more money in non-dues revenue, which accounts for 75 percent of the Chamber’s total revenues.

City Manager Joe Slocum commended Dutson’s efforts to date and said he was optimistic for the future of the organization. “Belfast has tried a variety of different things to boost the local economy. The extra enhanced assistance to the Chamber [in past years] was one of those things,” he said.

“I think it’s much, much better,” said Colonial Theater owner and City Councilor Mike Hurley. “Janet Dutson has just sparked it alive. I hope they ask us [the City Council] for a lot of money.”