RIVER FALLS -- The River Falls Chamber of Commerce will welcome a new executive director this month, one who is no stranger to the chamber field or the community.
Russ Korpela will fill the position, bringing a variety of experience, from other chambers, time in politics, his own small business and an earlier career in banking. Korpela is originally from Ashland.
“I’ve been a Wisconsin boy my entire life,” he said.
After earning his business degree at Michigan Tech University and starting a career in banking, he was elected to the Ashland City Council and eventually as mayor.
He then worked in Gov. Tommy Thompson’s office as the North West director, attending events on his behalf and advising him on issues relevant to the area. An unsuccessful state Senate run turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of Korpela’s life, he said. “It was fun, I enjoyed the whole experience."
Korpela was close to moving to Madison to work with the Department of Revenue, but decided against it. Instead he became the Cable Area Chamber director. This position started his span with chambers. Cable, with its ski and bike races, is where Korpela learned the value of tourism.
When the chamber position opened at his hometown, Korpela took it. The paper mill in town closed while Korpela was there, and he said he helped transition Ashland to embracing tourism.
When he moved down to this area for his wife’s job, Korpela said he worked with Menomonie Chamber of Commerce and the Pierce County Economic Development Center before becoming director of the New Richmond Chamber.
“It was one of the first chambers I had where it was a total reboot,” Korpela said. There he worked to rebuild the local chamber's brand and its events and grow membership.
“Every time that I’ve been a director I learned new things,” Korpela said.
Korpela was working as the executive director of Momentum West, when he decided to act on a long-held wish. Korpela, a foodie and craft beer lover, opened Common Man Brewing in Ellsworth in 2015.
Still, he didn’t completely leave the chamber field. While running his new business, Korpela also worked part time as the Ellsworth chamber director until last year.
“The chamber world had been very good to me,” he said.
About a month ago, Korpela said he began to feel the itch to get back into that world.
“Lo and behold, this chamber job was still open,” he said.
Korpela said he plans to build on the foundation that has been set at the River Falls Chamber of Commerce. He was drawn by the beautiful community and the health of the chamber. The area is one of the economic hotspots of the state, he said, and the chamber already has a strong membership and cool events.
The chamber also takes on the role of businesses’ advocate as well as community development.
“Chambers, when they’re run well, can move communities forward,” Korpela said, but they don't do it alone. The involvement of business community members makes that happens. The River Falls chamber is populated with doers who are passionate about the community, Korpela said.
One of the best examples of what can happen when chambers get involved, he said, is the new St. Croix Crossing bridge. When the National Park Service ruled the bridge couldn’t be built, it was a coalition of partnerships that worked to change the legislation.
“We got it done,” Korpela said.
Korpela’s goals for his first days with the chambers are to visit with members and staff and get a sense of where they’d like to see their chamber go. He will look at River Falls' events and see if there are any gaps thematically or in the calendar. He also wants to continue to make sure members are benefiting from their membership.
The board is also interested in redoing the chamber’s strategic plan. It’s a big undertaking, as the chamber seeks input from multiple sources, but Korpela said it is a good time for it.
“As a new director, it’s a wonderful opportunity to have new input,” he said.
Korpela said he wants to hear from people, both chamber members and community members, as he steps into the role.