Ask Peggy White, executive director of the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, what her operating principle is for that organization and she answers: “Muddy Boots on the Ground.” Sometimes this is literal, as when she dons boots to visit a chamber member whose business is dairy farming, then back into pumps for the Board of Supervisors meeting later that day. Mostly, though, it’s figurative as she does whatever hard work is needed to advance the cause of the chamber and, more importantly, help the members in their businesses.
“She is beyond passionate about the entire Pulaski community, and it is evident on a daily basis,” says Kevin Byrd, executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission. “She is always willing to try new approaches to elevate the awareness of the community and is an ardent supporter of businesses.“
Peggy came to the Chamber 20 years ago as the membership director and rose through the ranks to become executive director in 2008. She was well trained having jointly owned a business in which she handled some design issues, advertising and sales, followed by a stint as membership director at the YMCA.
Peggy’s efforts at networking and consistently checking in on members, assessing their needs and offering resources paid off when the economy took a downward turn in 2008. “We rode through the recession, never lost a member … and managed to stay out of the emergency fund and operate on what we had,” she relates.
The chamber with Peggy at the helm is credited with many innovative programs. A farmers market started in Pulaski which became a community event dubbed The Marketplace with live music and special programs all through the growing season. As part of a Virginia Cooperative Extension–Pulaski County program to introduce children and teens to healthy foods, the chamber brought in chefs to do cooking demos at The Marketplace using local produce.
The chamber started a project where a business would sponsor The Marketplace for that day. Just before The Marketplace closed, the chamber would use the money from the sponsorship to buy up any farm products that hadn’t sold and donate them to the local food pantry, ensuring that the farmers had a reason to come and helping the food pantry. The farmers market became self-sustaining, and the chamber was able to move on to other projects.
Peggy has a great commitment to help the youth of Pulaski County. She and the chamber have implemented several interesting programs intended to educate students about business and how to navigate the economic world. “We have two goals,” she says. “Let people know what we have and keep the talent in the area, while also preparing them for the workforce.”
Manufacturing Day Expo pairs interested students with the field that intrigues them and lets them explore that type of work. The industries, usually 10 to 12 locals, set up displays and hands-on activities. While the pandemic kept 35 students this spring from the activities, Peggy is sure the project will be back as soon as it is safe.
Another educational program is the Youth Excel, where 11th graders, after submitting a written application about their choice, are paired with people from an industry or vocation whom they shadow for a day. While it is usually chamber people and businesses involved, Peggy reaches beyond, like the time a student was interested in music therapy.
Eighth Grade Reality Day, in conjunction with Virginia Cooperative Extension, takes students through the process of applying for a job and then managing the money they get from it. “It gives them the idea of thinking ahead, planning, doing a budget,” Peggy observes of the 12-year program. “I love these kinds of outreach.”
The work that Peggy and the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce have done for area businesses include creating a resource guide for the Town of Pulaski as part of its Main Street project. She has also worked to encourage local businesses to have an online presence and helps with classes on web design and computer applications. She and the chamber staff are working hard on bring broadband to the area to facilitate all of this technology. The monthly “Tuesday Topic,” a Facebook Live event, gives the chamber and various guest speakers a chance to pursue these ideas even as the economic downturn and pandemic stymy their progress.
Peggy is optimistic about the future and has no plans of retiring. “I like to feel like I’m making a difference,” she declares. And she is. Joe Guthrie, chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Pulaski County has this to say about her: “Small businesses are the backbone of any local economy, so promoting those businesses and helping them thrive are key components in making any local economy work well. We are fortunate in Pulaski County that those businesses have an active and highly innovative chamber working for them, and that’s due in large part to the leadership provided by Peggy White.”
Text by Becky Hepler
Photos by Shannon Ainsley