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Chillicothe Chamber increasing membership, visibility

Chillicothe Chamber of Commerce

New and existing businesses are linking up with the Chillicothe Chamber of Commerce (CCOC), which has greatly increased its membership and visibility under the guidance of chamber facilitator Molly Crusen-Bishop. Together with former city mayor and current CCOC Business Marketing Committee president Don White, Crusen-Bishop has improved the chamber’s programming and launched new programs that have attracted new members from neighboring communities such as Sparland and Lacon, as well as small, local business that had made Chillcothe their home for years prior to joining up.

“I get paid to work 25 hours a week as chamber facilitator, and I love it,” said Crusen-Bishop, 50, who, along with her family, moved to the northern Peoria County village of 6,000 just four years ago. She began her work with the CCOC in July 2020, after working for two years at Pearce Community Center in Chillicothe.

“Everything was shut down (due to the pandemic) and my husband was working from home. I was laid off from Pearce with a lot of downtime for thinking,” Crusen-Bishop recalled. “The Chamber had put a job opening up. I applied and got the job, and hit the ground running-- which was hard to do when most places were not holding get-togethers.”

Crusen-Bishop drew on her history in public relations, inspired by her mother, Joannie Crusen, who served as president of the Moss-Bradley Association in Peoria, when first considering her goals as the new facilitator for the CCOC. A love for communications was developed by the future Chamber leader by the age of ten, when Crusen-Bishop delivered copies of the West Bluff Word (now Community Word) newspaper up and down the streets of West Peoria.

“I grew up seeing somebody who volunteered to help a lot in her community, and was invested in the world around her,” said Crusen-Bishop, who would go on to work in public access radio and author her own column in Women’s View magazine, among other media pursuits. Her resume also boasts prior experience in public and motivational speaking.

“When I started connecting with the movers and shakers in Chillicothe, that’s where that (experience) came into play with my background,” Crusen-Bishop said. “I have a personality where I can talk to people easily.”

Crusen-Bishop’s impact on the Chillicothe business community and the CCOC cannot be underestimated, according to White. “Molly provides value to the Chillicothe Chamber in two main ways; she has great contacts and connections with the Peoria community that helps promote Chillicothe in the Peoria area, and she does a great job of promoting the Chillicothe Chamber members through social media,” he said.

Crusen-Bishop was equally effusive in her praise for White.

“When Don was mayor he would come to all of our meetings and luncheons and was a huge supporter of the Chillicothe Chamber. He joined the Chamber after his time as mayor and just as our former president, Sarah Sites, was stepping down. I nominated Don even though I was not on the board because of his life and business experience. He’s been a great mentor to me, he has a great business acumen and he truly loves Chillicothe,” she said.

Under Crusen-Bishop and White’s guidance, CCOC membership has reached an all time high of 110 businesses. Monthly networking lunches with guest speakers, business after hours get-

togethers, and a new and improved newsletter are among the measures the CCOC is taking to energize local entrepreneurship and create business momentum.

A successful “Chillicothe Chocolate Tour” begun by the CCOC in 2021 sold out its allotment of 150 tickets this year. A coupon booklet program originated by Crusen-Bishop has garnered the attention of local business owners interested in getting more people into their stores. A number of ideas, including a punch card discount promotion, are under consideration by the CCOC Business Marketing Committee.

The newest CCOC member, Austin Griggs, operates a charter fishing business on the Illinois River and surrounding lakes. “I joined the CCOC because I believe that small businesses are the heart and soul of this country. Being a chamber member helps my business grow, and I will help promote the other members' businesses,” said Griggs, who started his guide business to create a steady income when he retires and to showcase, in his words, “just how great our natural resources are around here.”

Crusen-Bishop began her work with the CCOC at a time when TIF loans for facade improvements were literally helping transform the face of a historic four-block section of 2nd Street in downtown Chillicothe. Over a dozen businesses took advantage of the tax break (which is no longer currently available in the village) to purchase and install new windows, doorways, signage and framing on their storefronts.

“We have some of the most darling storefronts here and buildings that are over 100 years old. When I joined in 2020 I (wanted) to be a small part in helping Chillicothe become a historic destination site for all kinds of things,” said Bishop-Crusen. “My goal is to help get the businesses as much attention as I can.”

In the next five years, the energetic CCOC facilitator would like to see Chillicothe grow into more of a destination for dining and recreation. Promoting the town’s assets-- river access, great parks and recreation-- while increasing its dining and entertainment options are priorities of Crusen-Bishop’s.

“There is something to small town service. When you go in and out of these shops, (the owners) are going to talk to you, get to know you a bit, and truly value you as customers. I would love for more out of town visitors to come here and see what we have to offer,” she said. “We also have affordable housing here for those who might want to stay.”

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.