Members of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce got their first opportunity to meet the organization’s first new executive director in 17 years this week. With the conclusion at the end of this month of Sally Cole’s 17 years as the head of the Chamber, Cole’s replacement Elise Neil Bengtson has already been on the job for a week.
The Tuesday luncheon of the Chamber outdoors at the Dominion Wine and Beer restaurant marked her first appearance at a general Chamber event. She was present there with Sally Cole who formally introduced her to the gathering of three dozen Chamber faithful between courses being served of the meal, intermittent rainfall (no worries, the area was well covered by canvas tent material), short greetings by F.C. Mayor David Tarter and Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, the introduction of Chamber sponsors by current Chamber board president Barbara Benson, the brief self-introductions of everyone there, the month’s formal presentation by representatives of the Falls Church-based Arc of Northern Virginia on the benefits of hiring persons with disabilities, and the cheerful event-concluding raffle of the table centerpieces.
Many lingered after the formal adjournment to continue conversations, and through it all, Elise Neil Bengtson seemed totally in her element. This comes as no surprise because she has a lifetime of experience working with groups just such as this one, including for the Chamber of Commerce for neighboring McLean, the National Symphony Orchestra and offshoots, the Volunteer Fairfax outfit, the Fairfax Partnership for Youth and the regional Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra. She is also active in her Alexandria-based Episcopal church. From 1983 to 1998 she worked in the White House under three presidents.
“I love Chamber life,” she told the News-Press in a short conversation after the event this Tuesday. “I am big on community, and Falls Church has a great, strong community.”
She recalls working with the Falls Church Chamber during her time with its McLean counterpart, noting Falls Church’s more aggressive commitment to economic development that began around 2000 and has resulted in a continuing growth of new large-scale mixed use projects now leading up to the really big one, the combined development of over 40 acres by the West Falls Church Metro linking the properties there of the City of F.C., Virginia Tech and WMATA.
That one will require more cooperation with forces in McLean that will surely put Elise’s talents to the test.
Among the memorable Falls Church figures she recalls working with from before is the late Falls Church Chamber executive who preceded Sally Cole, the unforgettable World War II Pacific Theater U.S. Submarine Commander Robert S. ‘Hap’ Day, the good natured burly man, a lineman on the U.S. Naval Academy football team in the late 1930s, who served the local Chamber from the mid-1980s for 14 years until the end of the 1990s, and who passed away at age 93 in December 2013.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, but having spent most of her life in this area, Ms. Neil Bengtson says she likes to keep both her names because her many years of service in this region has involved her using one or the other of them many times, and this way she’s more likely to connect with former friends and associates from across her wide range of experiences.
In a farewell guest commentary published in this week’s edition of the News-Press, Sally Cole noted that “so much has changed since 2004. Falls Church has grown, as has the Chamber which doubled its membership.” Cole’s guest commentary appears on Page 7 of this edition.
The City has grown, indeed, from about 10,000 when she came on board the Chamber to over 14,300 now in just her 17 years at its helm, and the boom is fully expected to continue that will challenge the Chamber to be on top of all the issues of development and business best interests.
It’s active legislative committee will continue to evaluate all the development proposals that come before the City Council and to make recommendations, and it will continue an active role on the City’s quasi-independent Economic Development Authority, always looking to represent the often interests of the lively business community here, whether it is weighing in on an outdoor dining ordinance, sound ordinance or trying to strike a balance between the interests of large scale new developments and local merchants and restaurants.
Sally Cole says she will continue to author the weekly “Business News and Notes” section of the News-Press until her successor is ready to take over, and there will continue to be a lot of demand for the remarkable talents she has to offer.
She will have to insist on that time she’s promised herself to go volunteer at that famous elephant refuge in Tennessee.