Steamboat Springs Outgoing Steamboat Springs Chamber CEO Tom Kern has scored victories on numerous business fronts during his three years in Steamboat Springs. But a decade hence, what he might be best remembered for is salvaging Independence Day 2012.
For those who have forgotten, 2012 was the summer the fireworks were never lit. The Yampa Valley was in the grips of a persistent drought and local fire officials, regretfully, but prudently, called off the huge Fourth of July pyrotechnic display that Steamboat had become famous for among locals and visitors alike.
With two weeks warning, Kern needed to find something to put the wow factor back in the Fourth of July, and it had to be good. What he came up with was second only to John, Paul, George and Ringo. He had an existing working relationship with a nationally touring Beatles cover band and, without hesitation, booked 1964...The Tribute to perform a free Fourth of July concert at the base of the ski jumps at Howelsen Hill.
Kern, who announced Monday that he will resign at the end of September after three years on the job to move closer to his aging parents in Michigan, was a made man in Steamboat from that day forward.
The band’s performance was so incendiary, the crowd of thousands forgot all about Roman candles.
Longtime Chamber board member Kathy Stokes remembers that holiday well because in addition to booking the band, Kern ordered 2,000 plastic fiber-optic wands to hand out as surrogate Fourth of July sparklers at the entrance to the concert. He hired her business to print out and attach holiday greetings from the Chamber to each of the gifts.
“It actually looked like the Fourth of July,” with all of those light wands waving in the air, Stokes recalled.
On the business side, Stokes said the local economy was in need of a post-recessionary re-set when Kern arrived in September 2011.
“One of the areas I think he really shined in was he took the Chamber far outside its normal zone as a chamber resort,” Stokes said. “That area was not neglected, but he reached out and did serious economic development work. He came in with a wealth of knowledge we hadn’t experienced before, and he came in at such a tough time in our economy when we needed a change of strategy.”
Kern was announced as the replacement for longtime Chamber Executive Director Sandy Evans Hall in late July 2011. Prior to coming here, he was the top chamber exec in Lawrence, Kan. He arrived with an economic development track record built in larger metro areas like Cincinnati, Ohio, and suburban Washington, D.C.
During his tenure in Steamboat, Kern would remain true to his economic heritage, setting out to deliver a new economic development Web page for Steamboat in spring 2013 and traveling to trade shows for the outdoor recreation industry to better understand that growing niche within Steamboat’s larger economy.
But as someone who had been a frequent visitor to Steamboat prior to taking the Chamber job, he quickly grasped Northwest Colorado’s peculiar challenges. He visited and surveyed local businesses and seized on the growing number of location-neutral businesses and workers here, asking what the community could do to help them prosper.
Kern also took an active role in restoring and broadening summer airline service here.
Board members Rex Brice, a restaurateur, and Jon Wade, a Realtor, agreed that Kern brought a new level of business sophistication to the Chamber itself.
“He really opened a group of very capable business people’s eyes,” Wade said. “He really ran the Chamber like a business. If (a tourism) event had gone stale, he figured out how to right-size it.
“He opened our eyes to what’s possible,” Wade continued. “We were focused on the resort economy, and he accomplished more than we had in a long time. But he also assessed what the community needed.”
“This is a big loss for Steamboat,” Brice said. “He’s a sharp guy. He really did a good job of getting the finances of the Chamber streamlined. He’s run a clean budget since he got there.”
Most recently, Kern played a leadership role in acquiring a new piece of telecommunications infrastructure that some say has the potential to give Steamboat more bandwidth at a lower cost while delivering much-needed redundancy in telecommunications lines.
“I don’t think Tom likes to hear the word ‘no,’” Stokes said. “He was huge at bringing partners in to solve challenges. He believes if you get the right people in the room, you can accomplish anything.”
The new carrier-neutral location allows broadband providers to connect to one another and initially is enabling the school district, the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County to pay far less for more connectivity, but the hope is that the effects will trickle down to regional customers large and small.
“Tom is leaving our community in a much better state than it was when he arrived. We’re very fortunate to have Tom, his experience, leadership and guidance,” Chamber board President Kerry Shea said in a news release. “Through his leadership, Tom has laid the foundation that has provided the momentum for us to continue to grow and prosper for the future, in not only the area of tourism, but in economic development.”
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Chris Diamond said Kern knew how to take an organization forward.
“He has an understanding of the leadership of complex business organizations like our Chamber,” Diamond said. “He got the big picture and really engaged in all facets of the job. It’s unusual to have someone who covers so many bases.”
When Kern and his wife, Rosie Kern, who serves as marketing and communications manager for Yampa Valley Medical Center, move to Michigan, it will mark a return to familiar special events and issues. Early in his career, Kern served as both the president of the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City and as a Grand Traverse county commissioner.
“The past three years in Steamboat Springs have been a great experience for both Rosie and I,” Kern was quoted as saying in a news release. “We really love this place, but family responsibilities need to be my primary focus right now. It’s our hope that one day we’ll be able to return.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1