Julie Kiehne is moving on from the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce to become director of the Small Business Development Center at the Rochester Community and Technical College. She is shown, second from left, with her daughter, Megan, her husband, Tim and her son, Michael.  SARAH PETERSON/PETERSON CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY
Julie Kiehne is moving on from the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce to become director of the Small Business Development Center at the Rochester Community and Technical College. She is shown, second from left, with her daughter, Megan, her husband, Tim and her son, Michael. SARAH PETERSON/PETERSON CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY
On Thursday, Feb. 20, the Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a farewell reception for the former director, Julie Kiehne. It will be a community gathering to allow people to recognize and thank her for the 10 years she served as chamber director, while enjoying cake and punch. The reception will begin at 6 p.m. and last until 8 p.m. at the Commonweal Theatre.

Kiehne had been the chamber director for 10 years before moving on to another position with Rochester Community and Technical College earlier this year.

As she served the Lanesboro community, Lanesboro's chamber transitioned through many changes. At the beginning of her tenure in 2003, her position required only a part-time job with Experience Works, formerly Green Thumb, volunteers covering the visitor's center.

Over the years, the functions and priorities of the visitor center and Chamber of Commerce morphed into responsibilities which required changes in the staffing. Eventually, the director role expanded into a full-time position and even called for an administrative assistant to aid the director. The visitor center required part-time personnel, available six days a week.

While developing staff positions, the chamber also sought to improve the value for the members and supplied a tiered membership role. They rebuilt the old website into one that is robust and offers an online lodging availability system, event calendar, business listing and social media enhancement. In addition, they created a full-color, glossy visitor guide and community promotional brochure.

Under Kiehne's leadership, the state legislature dubbed Lanesboro the Bed & Breakfast Capital of Minnesota and later, the Rhubarb Capital of Minnesota.

"The number of lodging rooms increased during this decade and thus the local option lodging tax also grew to fund the marketing and promotion efforts," Kiehne said. "With a second designation, Lanesboro had another feather in our cap and touted the joys of Rhubarb!"

She continued, "Media coverage expanded with frequent exposure in publications like Midwest Living, Outside Magazine and Smithsonian Magazine."

Finally, Kiehne explained, the chamber hired a professional consultant to lead the group in some rigorous strategic planning that really set the course for ongoing projects and priorities for years to come.

Kiehne's efforts did not stop with improvements in Lanesboro itself. One of the most recent accomplishments of the directorship was expanding her efforts in the outreach to partner with area communities and volunteers to mutually improve tourism throughout the region.

"The Root River Trail Towns group, including nine small towns on the Root River Trail, was formed to increase visitor referrals across the towns on the trail system and expand marketing and event promotion," she further explained. "The Trail Towns Initiative also works to assure the Root River State Bike Trail System is maintained and continues as a viable asset across our region."

Interim Chamber Director Marv Eggert emphasized she was the key in procuring funds for a major landscaping project at the Lanesboro Trail Head in an effort to improve tourism.

"The Explore Mississippi Bluffs group was formed as a multi-community partnership with the towns connecting the Mississippi River and the Root River including Red Wing, Wabasha, Winona and Lanesboro. Marketing dollars were leveraged as a result of these partnerships," Kiehne added.

She also took part in the Southern Minnesota Tourism Association (SMTA), serving as the association president. It proved to be a very rewarding and challenging opportunity to network regionally and expand her connections.

Expanding her connections included meeting state legislators. "Julie regularly led Lanesboro's efforts on yearly visits to the state capital on Trail Day and Hospitality and Tourism Day to discuss tourism-related concerns with our legislators," Eggert related.

As the chamber developed, Kiehne understood it was time to move on. The initial goals she had set had been fulfilled and she needed something new to challenge her. She also knew Lanesboro needed a new director to bring in new ideas and skills to approach the program with fresh eyes and a new perspective.

She commented, "I think it is healthy for any organization to have new leadership and grow in new ways."

Regarding her work, Eggert testified, "Julie did a great job of building the partnership within the region and community to help pull Lanesboro forward."

"She is a person of integrity that the community could count on. As the 'face of Lanesboro,' Julie often represented Lanesboro to the media and to other small mid-west communities seeking to learn from Lanesboro's successes," he continued.

Eggert described her as someone who was ready to answer any questions asked about the community.

Kiehne greatly appreciates the opportunity to have worked as chamber director. While her children grew within the Lanesboro school system, she began working within the fabric of the community. "I was supported by many board members, allowing me the freedom to develop programs, marketing and a membership structure in response to the needs of business members," she said.

With the changing of jobs, she found she missed people contributing positive energy and the "get er' done" attitude. Rather than saying "They should do this," they said, "What can we do to help move the chamber forward."

This attitude was greatly appreciated and is a valued commodity within Lanesboro, Kiehne added. "The people are the real asset in the community!" she emphasized.

Though she has gone on to a new position, she and her family will stay involved in the Lanesboro community. "My son, Matthew, is a junior in the Lanesboro High School, my daughter, Megan, is already off to college and my husband, Tim, continues to work as manager of Preston Foods," she explained.

Their family remains active at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and will continue to be seen around town. She also will continue singing the praises of rhubarb in the women's a cappella quartet, "The Lanesboro Rhubarb Sisters." They are preparing for this year's Rhubarb Concert at the St. Mane Theatre on the evening of Saturday, May 31, and the Rhubarb Festival on Saturday, June 7, at Lanesboro's Sylvan Park.

Kiehne's new position is in the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) operated by the Rochester Community and Technical College. The SBDC is supported by the Small Business Administration, the Department of Employment and Economic Development, multiple regional partners and local funding sources. SBDC offers at no cost, confidential consulting to help businesses in Southeast Minnesota identify, understand and overcome the challenges of starting a business, running a successful business and developing exit strategies.

Kiehne oversees six satellite offices that carry out the three core services of professional business consulting, training and access to capital for small businesses. "I continue to believe small businesses and entrepreneurs are the backbone of our community," she said. "I am passionate about helping small businesses remain viable in today's competitive and ever-changing business world."

Meanwhile, the hunt draws to an end as the chamber seeks a new director. "We are getting close to having a person in place. Hopefully by the middle of March we will have our new director," Eggert stated.