Frank Tamberrino, Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce president and CEO of 11 years, is stepping down on Jan. 31 as he takes “a break” from a career that spans over four decades in economic development.
“We’ll see what the future has, but I’m not in a hurry,” said Tamberrino, who got his first job at 15.
He said the role of the chamber as connector has evolved over time with technology, but connections between people, community and business are always ready to be strengthened or made.
“The chamber under [Tamberrino’s] leadership has definitely been one that’s understood the role of manufacturing and the blue-collar jobs in this community and how important that is to this community,” said Casey Armstrong, economic development director for Rockingham County. “They’re essentially the backbone of this community, and he understood that.”
The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber was one of the first groups to spring into action when the pandemic first hit in March by starting a program to support small businesses through grants, according to Armstrong.
“I think that just shows where Frank and the chamber leadership’s heart is,” Armstrong said.
Tamberrino previously worked in Pensacola, Fla., and Maury County, which is south of Nashville in Tennessee.
At those locations, he helped raise the profile of the regions as he started work with reorganized economic development bodies.
He said that in the past for some people, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County may have just been a place they pass on Interstate 81. But the hard work of city, county and chamber staff coupled with the business community have showcased just how important the Valley is to other areas, such as Richmond and Northern Virginia.
“You’re seeing people with a better understanding of what the area’s all about,” Tamberrino said.
“From an organizational standpoint, this chamber, I think, has probably got one of the highest [profiles] in the region and Virginia that we’ve had in years and years and years,” he said.
No one major accomplishment of the chamber over the past 10-plus years stood out to Tamberrino, he said.
However, securing the I-81 improvement package was one that took no small amount of work from area legislators and the local business community, he said.
“We finally had some coalitions that really came together,” Tamberrino said.
Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill establishing a fund where the money generated by a regional gas tax would be spent on $2 billion worth of improvements identified for I-81. Improvements and expansion of safety services on I-81 began July 1, 2019.
For years, legislators and business groups had advocated for work on the interstate, which was originally designed to handle about 15% of its traffic as trucks. Data from recent years show that ratio has increased to an average of 26% and up to 35% in some places.
The coalition included local chambers all along Virginia’s I-81 corridor, other business groups and companies, including those in the logistics sector, according to Tamberrino.
Previously, bills to improve I-81 would die in committees predominantly controlled by legislators from high-population parts of the state, such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, he said.
To address this, it wasn’t just about education, but personal understanding about how to approach the legislators, Tamberrino said.
He said it meant not just emphasizing the economic benefit for the state, but the public safety benefit to legislators since many of their children have, do or will travel on I-81 for college, such as James Madison University, Virginia Tech or one of the other numerous universities in the I-81 corridor.
But he said it’s not the job of chambers to lobby. Instead, chamber staff are educators, according to Tamberrino.
“We’re not down there trying to pass one thing or block another. We’re trying to make sure the climate is as conducive to business as can be,” Tamberrino said.
And Tamberrino has been a champion for businesses small and large alike, according to Armstrong.
Tamberrino didn’t just connect large businesses to each other and development resources, according to City Councilman Chris Jones, a member of the chamber’s board.
“Frank welcomed small and family-owned business to large corporations and treated them all the same,” Jones said.
“Frank wasn’t just a figurehead,” Jones said. “He rolled up his sleeves and did the work on various subcommittees at the chamber.”
The chamber is in the process of finding Tamberrino’s successor — a process Tamberrino declined to participate in, though he was offered a spot.
And there’s still work to do yet as he has a month left at the helm and expects work on Jan. 31 — a Sunday.
“This is still a people business when you’re working on behalf of community development, economic development and a number of the broader focused nonprofits,” Tamberrino said. “It’s all about the community and community development.”