COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — The Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce seeks to “have the most fun we’ve ever had" this season, says president Wayne Butt.

The 2019-20 season kicked off with a similar sense of enthusiasm: when the former executive director stepped down late last month, Laurie Levine accepted an offer to start that same afternoon.

“It’s my dream job,” she said. “I just have a passion for helping grow the business community.”

Levine credits her new position in part to her strong involvement with the business community, which started when she opened Yo-Joe’s in Cottage Grove and River Falls, Wis., in 2012. The business is no longer operating, but the connections she made in the process led to her next few jobs. As the new executive director, she wants to expand such networking opportunities to as many people as possible, she said. The two leaders say their overall goals are to increase membership and overall visibility of the chamber, which covers Cottage Grove, Newport and St. Paul Park.

To get there, Butt said, he’s ready to break from tradition and use feedback from community members.

For instance, he’s interested in lowering the cost of attending the annual banquet, and wants to re-brand the “Chamber Fest” to market to non-members.

“We have to fit the budget, but I’d rather have a free dinner and get everyone to show up, and celebrate the entire year,” he said. “It’s just, what can we do different?”

Vice president Ben Gathje said Levine’s commitment to growing the chamber made her stand out as an ideal candidate for the job.

“When it came to ideas on growing, it’s about connecting the chamber and the businesses and our events. We’ve never really had that successfully,” he said. “I think her ideas of going out there, being engaged with the community … that’s what stood out to me.”

Originally, Butt, who runs the John P. Furber farm with his wife, Angi, had been selected for a four-year commitment to the chamber, in which he would succeed through the positions of second and first vice chair, president and past president each year.

After two years, he left the chamber last December when he was appointed to serve as an interim Cottage Grove City Council member. He returned over the summer when he decided not to run for re-election.

“I decided my calling was with the chamber,” he said.

The chamber decided Butt could pick up where he left off, starting as president this fall. His last City Council meeting as a member will be Nov. 16.

“He’s very passionate, got a lot of good ideas and works 10 times harder than anybody else," Gathje said.

Chamber members pay dues based on the size of their business. The membership includes networking events, member-to-member business discounts and the ability to have a grand opening or ribbon cutting with the chamber, Levine said. Currently, the chamber's biggest annual highlights are the awards banquet, business showcase and golf tournament fundraiser for a scholarship.

“The big three (benefits for businesses) I think are the credibility, visibility and the networking,” Levine said. “It’s a planned networking where businesses don’t have to do anything, they just have to show up.”

The chamber has 175 members, including large companies such as Renewal by Andersen, 3M and Hy-Vee, as well as local businesses.

“The more memberships with the chamber, the more you’ll grow off of doing business with others,” Levine said. “It’s not always who you may meet at an event, it’s also who they know.”