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Jean Gaines: Loving Local Business Like a Mother

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Few people can say they have their own holiday, but this civic leader enjoys special recognition every Nov. 12. The president of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce has spent four decades nurturing her favorite town into a thriving community.

Jean Gaines

Whenever she speaks about Geneva, Jean Gaines, the city’s Chamber of Commerce president, sounds like a proud mother relating stories of her children. She’s spent four decades nurturing business development in the town she loves, and she’s been integral to many of the community events that showcase Geneva’s unique characteristics.

What makes Geneva so lovable a community?

We’ve always had a rich history of offering something for everyone. Geneva was founded in 1835, and that’s when the first shop opened selling pots, pans and laces. That was the beginning of specialty shops in Geneva – something our community has excelled at ever since. We continue to offer a great variety of dining and shopping experiences.

How do you help Geneva live up to its motto of being a ‘picture postcard’ of a town?

The slogan, “Geneva, A Picture Postcard” was something we came up with years ago. We were trying to come up with a perfect picture that was an image of what Geneva is. While we were working on finding the right picture, it turned out everyone had their own image in mind. We realized we were onto something. Many people can take a trip here and have a different snapshot of what makes this destination great. Whatever image you have in mind, your own personal image, your own marker of your time spent here, is your picture postcard. That personified the unique experiences people have when living in or visiting Geneva. We create a set of postcard images for the festivals, for the shopping, for the dining, for the beauty of the town. The uniqueness of each person’s visit helps to create the variety of picture postcard memories people take home with them.

As Geneva grows, how do you maintain the charming small-town feel?

We are growing, with 23,000 residents now, but part of the reason we’ll retain that small-town feel is because of how and where the town is built. We are locked in by surrounding towns and can’t get much bigger. We can grow up, but not out. Also, the nature of the way the town was built, with our T-shaped shopping district, lends itself to the small-town feel. Everyone knows each other’s first names, and that’s how we like it. Geneva is big enough to have a variety of experiences, but small enough to remain a tightknit community. It’s a blend of both old and new.

What is your top goal as chamber president?

Our goal is to keep every business in operation, and we attract a wide assortment of businesses to Geneva. We work hard to keep Geneva healthy and thriving. I’m fortunate to have a great staff that takes pride in presenting our town in the best light and helping every business owner to be successful.

What is the key to maintaining economic growth and keeping commerce buzzing?

It’s a treat to come to Geneva and find a special shop or enjoy the explosion of food choices. We work hard to help people see that Geneva is a unique, one-of-a-kind experience and to make them feel that, if they had a great time once, they will want to come again. The backbone of our community is our small businesses, and I like to say, ‘the owner is in,’ meaning that the owner lives and works in the community, can be found in the shop giving great customer service and makes the visiting experience a great one. Over my time in the Chamber, we’ve seen some dips in the economy, but Geneva has always recovered. Right now, we seem to be hopping. We’re enjoying the rebound, for sure.

What is your favorite part of summer and fall festivals in Geneva?

It’s rewarding to see how many people come together to make a festival work. It takes hundreds of people to devote time and energy for an event to be successful. It really brings the people of Geneva together and helps draw others into our town. The variety of festivals is always fun. The Geneva Arts Fair (July 22-23) is truly a fine arts show with artwork displayed in an outdoor gallery. The Festival of the Vine (Sept. 8-10) has such amazing food, wine and fun; it’s truly one of the area’s favorite festivals. And the feeling on the street during the Christmas Walk (Dec. 1) is something you wish you could bottle and sell. We love them all, and each festival has its own special events. Not only are we creating fun events, but a very serious economic benefit, too.

In 2013, Nov. 12 was named Jean Gaines Day. What’s it like to have a day commemorating you?

Every year we have the Wood Community Service Award, and in 2013 we were working on that year’s recipient. The whole staff and I went through our normal routine of preparing to celebrate and honor this person, but as it turns out, the nominee was just a stand-in. While we were working on what I thought was that year’s recipient, my staff, as well as the fake nominee, were, in truth, nominating me. They even got then-Gov. Pat Quinn to declare the day Jean Gaines Day. They were very proud of themselves for pulling off that one. It was a memory maker for sure.

If you could impart one lesson about helping a community grow, what would it be?

Find out what you do best and be patient as you go. Festival of the Vine was a disaster the first three years, but because we learned what worked and didn’t work, it’s now blossomed into our most popular festival. Helping a community grow is a little like raising children. You pour time, love and energy into them, be patient and give them time, and then watch them grow.

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