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Ryan ready to let new director chart chamber's post-COVID course

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Apr 19, 2021
Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds Steve Ryan poses in the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce office. He is leaving his job as executive director to retire to Portugal.

Belfast — When Steve Ryan took over as executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce in September 2017, he thought of it as a way to serve his community while stepping back from the pressures of a long career in health care finance. At the time, he did not expect 3 1/2 years later to be planning a move overseas.

Ryan is leaving his job at the chamber, probably around the beginning of July, "but it's a little fluid," he told The Republican Journal April 16. After that, he and his wife are retiring to Portugal, which he said they are looking forward to as a big adventure.

The Ryans have never visited Portugal, but he said they have done "a ton of research" on the country, which is known as "one of the most affordable places to retire." He said he had been "dabbling in Portuguese," but added that many people there speak English, as it is required in school. The couple are working their way through the process of applying for visas.

Several factors came together to make this a good time for him to step down, he said, including the fact that the lease on his house ended and that he and his wife wanted to travel. Then, he said, they started researching a move to Portugal and liked what they read.

In addition, with Maine and the nation feeling more hopeful about emerging from the pandemic, he felt it was a good time for a new executive director to chart the chamber's post-COVID course. As for the organization's current position, "We're in great shape right now, and it's a pretty good time for a changing of the guard."

He said the chamber has begun a nationwide search for a new executive director, and hopes to have someone in the job early in June.

When he started, Ryan said, the chamber had been focusing almost exclusively on Belfast, and he worked to establish rapport with businesses and municipalities outside the city. He said he was proud of having steered the chamber through the cultural shift necessary to bring it to the point of serving all of Waldo County now, with 45% of its members coming from outside Belfast.

He also noted that the chamber has strong relationships with business groups in Lincolnville, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Unity, which are mostly run by volunteers. "We're fully supportive of them," he said. "We can bring the consistency and strength of our countywide chamber" to help them.

For the future, Ryan said, the chamber must continue to examine how it relates to businesses and individual members, continually tweaking how it responds to the needs of different types of businesses.

One thing he has been working on is tailoring the chamber's relationships with different business sectors, such as agriculture, the wellness industry and other chambers, to provide offerings that are useful to each group.

He said he is very optimistic about the future of Belfast and Waldo County, noting that as many businesses have started up or reopened as have closed down during the pandemic, and also that commercial spaces that have been vacated "were snapped up right away."

Ryan said he has been "thrilled" to get to know the "superstar entrepreneurs" around the county, and will miss talking with business owners. He will also miss participating the chamber's awards, which he said sometimes mean more to recipients than he would have imagined.

In closing, he expressed his appreciation to the chamber's board of directors, whom he said were "very strong, involved people who are focused on leadership."

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