In this five-part series, leaders of local business and neighborhood associations have a chance to talk about what they love about West Hartford.
By Lisa Lelas, as seen in West Hartford Magazine, Issue 1, 2015
Photos by Todd Fairchild/ShutterbugCT.com
Even if you didn’t grow up here, it’s impossible to miss the many positive changes that have come to West Hartford over the past few years.
The cornerstones for a significant part of that metamorphosis are West Hartford’s four strong business associations that have nurtured, encouraged, and served as the foundation for change and development: West Hartford Center Business Association, Elmwood Business Association, Park Road Association and Bishops Corner Neighborhood Association. And alongside them all the way is the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce.
We-Ha.com will spotlight each association in this weekly five-part series.
Meet Barbara Karsky … president of the West Hartford Center Business Association (WHCBA). As owner of BK&Co. on LaSalle Road, Barbara has been a member of the association for 20 years. She has been the association president for the past two years and served as vice president for two years prior.
“The brand of the WHCBA is ‘Shop, Dine, Stroll,’” says Barbara. “We try to wrap all our events into a stroll, or a shopping or dining experience. The Center is such a pretty section of town. A great place to come with your family and have a great time. It’s a vibrant community. We have wonderful members, great stores and restaurants … some of the best-rated businesses in the state are found right here in the Center!”
Barbara’s shop, BK&Co., is a business wrapped around its own brand of “selling sophisticated clothing for fabulous women like you!” As she explains, “It’s all about feeling comfortable in fashion, in your own style. We keep it friendly and non-intimidating … just like the sense throughout the Center in all of the businesses.”
Good customer service is important to the members of the WHCBA.“Most businesses here offer exceptional service. We are all about the customer. We really celebrate them and make the customer experience friendly and non-intimidating. Unlike big chain stores, in our businesses, you’ll find the owner or a local manager there to help you every day.”
While the center of town is becoming known for its fabulous events, Barbara laughs as she admits, “We need to make our events especially fun because parking is still an issue here in the Center.” But she adds, “People will park and walk, if needed, because the events here are always such a big draw!”
Favorite events include the West Hartford Center Sales Days in January and July, each time offering a three-day shopping extravaganza. The July event is a very popular sidewalk sale.
“During Fashion Week, in the fall and spring, we do a week of multiple events for many of the clothing retailers, culminating in one big fashion show event highlighting the best of the best from many of our local retailers.”
Other popular events include a Holiday Stroll every December (they even had a flash mob this past year!), Halloween Stroll, an exclusive Ferrari Concorso event, and an annual KidsCard event which benefits the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. KidsCard has raised over a quarter million dollars, so far, says Barbara.
“Our Association is really a great collaboration of different minds. We try to have events not just geared to retail sales but also for giving back to the community through charity events and just fun family days to bring the community out and about.”
The WHCBA now has about 60 members. “We are campaigning this year to generate more local businesses to join the Association.We’ve really evolved in many ways over the past 20 years. We’ve always had a board of directors, requiring a two-thirds majority vote on special issues, such as how to spend money on marketing and events, and so on.”
Linda French was the original face, for many years, behind the WHCBA and the Chamber, since she ran both for a long time. “When she retired,” Barbara explains, “the board of directors took over and we were forced to go in an all new direction. We have a great board of directors and very informative meetings. Everyone in the community gets involved, from the public works department to the police department. All the pieces of the community are discussed.”
Post 9-11 the association had lost its vibrancy, reflecting the mood and economy throughout the country. The board of directors took it over, but it was a challenging time trying to get members involved because it was a tough time economically.
“It’s gone through many evolutions. It’s been hard for many mom and pop stores in recent years. Many years ago, taking one small ad in a local newspaper was enough to bring customers in, but now, as we discuss in our meetings, the issue is, ‘How and where do I spend my advertising/marketing dollars?’ There are so many choices now from radio, satellite radio, cable TV, newspapers, magazines, social media, digital advertising … it can be overwhelming! The business association has been very helpful for everyone in collaborating ideas, generating events to bring in business, and offering solutions to many common challenges.”
The WHCBA has had an incredible resurgence in recent years. “Our meetings are much more fun and social now. This year, the Board meets on the second Wednesday of the month and every couple of months or so, we do an evening ‘mixer.’ We combine our business meetings with a social aspect for networking. All issues are discussed, from marketing and parking issues to whatever current challenge might be happening … but combining the meeting with a fun social event has allowed business owners to really get to know each other for cross-marketing purposes. It’s been very beneficial in sparking new interest for joining.”
“The social aspect of our meetings has been great. We want them to be fun! For instance, we had a Halloween mixer last year where members came dressed as their favorite super hero! We had a ‘white elephant’ gift exchange, whereby everyone wrapped something from their business and explained the meaning behind it when it was opened. We’re always coming up with new ways to learn about each others’ businesses,” says Barbara.
Coming up next, Barbara says the association is going to feature a “speed dating” type of business networking, where everyone will have a few minutes one-on-one to engage personally with another business. Camaraderie is key, she says. It’s important to members that they address the personal side of businesses as well as the business side.
“Things are looking up now!” smiles Barbara. “People are feeling more connected. It’s gone back to feeling like more of a ‘community’ again. Smaller groups within our own area recently started collaborating for mini-events, which help make the entire community prosper. They’ve been very instrumental in our growth and our success!”
“People are feeling more connected, as a result,” says Barbara. “But of course, it goes without saying that a good economy is always helpful to get people in better moods!”
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