Where It All began..

The Whitley County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center got its start in 1919 as The Commercial Development Club under the leadership of H. B. Clugston, its founder and first President. The organization continued under that name until July 1951 when the club reorganized and officially became The Columbia City Chamber of Commerce under the leadership of Paul Morsches. Th newly organized Chamber of Commerce met quarterly, with their primary goal to attract tourism.

In July 1953, the Chamber was instrumental in establishing Chain O’ Lakes State Park. To generate a better cash flow, they formed the “Eager Beavers Club” in which they were encouraged to pay their dues early in order to be considered an Eager Beaver. Membership soared to 165. By the end of the 1950’s the Chamber was made up of 8 committees: The Youth Committee, the Fish Fry Committee, the Eager Beaver Committee, the High School Building Committee, and the Industrial Development Committee, the Recreation Committee, the Civic Affairs Committee, and the county’s first economic development group. The Chamber started meeting monthly in 1958.

In 1962, the Chamber and the Lions Club worked together to get the Courthouse dome illuminated at night. At this point, the Chamber had 191 members and the Chamber name was officially changed to the Columbia City Area Chamber of Commerce. In 1976, the Community Facilities Committee raised money to build a medical building for four new doctors coming to town. In 1980, Dick Haworth was hired as executive director. He was the first to suggest the idea to honor a Citizen of the Year and Outstanding Service to the Community Award for Columbia City. At this time, the Chamber office was located on the second floor of City Hall before it was remodeled. Glenn Frank was executive director from 1986 through 1995. The Chamber moved from a two-room office on Main Street to the much more spacious office suite on South Chauncey across from the Court House. A part of Glenn’s job was to sell lots in the city’s new industrial park. He was very instrumental in getting one of the lots designated at that time as Indiana’s only wetland property within city limits — a space now enjoyed by visitors to the Peabody Library.

When Glenn Frank retired in 1995, the Chamber hired Dan Trenary as the executive director and Pat Hatcher as the executive assistant. Following Dan’s departure, Pat Hatcher was then hired to be the executive director. The Chamber was, at that time, located in a historic home at 201 North Line Street in Columbia City.

In 2009, work began to investigate the prospect of becoming a county-wide chamber. The chamber board voted to pursue this direction and in March of 2010 the name was once again changed and became the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce. This reflected the merger of the Columbia City Area Chamber of Commerce and the South Whitley Chamber of Commerce. The chamber also made a move to 518 Garland Avenue, Suite A, in Columbia City. Sara Goff was hired as executive director, followed by Doug Brown. The Whitley County Chamber of Commerce reorganized with a new board of directors whose members were representative of the different communities.

In 2016, Jennifer Romano became the executive director and soon the organization became the Whitley County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center. They moved the organization to a larger space on the north side of the courthouse square in downtown Columbia City at 128 West Van Buren Street in Columbia City. The new space included the addition of a visitors center, expanded conference room space, co-working space and new programs aimed at highlighting and promoting members as well as the community. Jennifer Romano retired from her role as executive director of the Chamber in January 2022, after helping the Chamber successfully navigate a pandemic and ensuring the Chamber was in a strong financial position.

In February 2022, Jennifer Esterline accepted the position as Executive Director. A California native, deeply involved in west coast business development and creating strong alliances in small business communities with the need for fresh revitalization. Making South Whitley her home, Jennifer found the need to rally our small towns, be the voice of small business, and add a vibrant outlook to the progressive growth of Whitley County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center.

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