MAHOPAC, N.Y. - It’s been nearly two and a half years since Erin Meagher, the former Greater Mahopac/Carmel Chamber of Commerce CEO and executive director, was fired and subsequently arrested on grand larceny charges for using a Chamber debit card to purchase thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing and accessories for her own use.
It was a dark time for the Chamber, which came under fire for the incident as members demanded answers and the public turned a skeptical eye in the organization’s direction.
That’s all just a bad memory now and as current Chamber CEO Michael Celestino puts it, “There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. We can actually see the end of the tunnel now.”
With Celestino at the helm, the Chamber has a new headquarters and a new chair of its board of directors. Membership is on the rise and the group’s image has gradually been rehabilitated.
“We had to get our house in order to be better for the community,” said Celestino, who was hired in the wake of Meagher’s sudden departure. “We had to get our act together internally. I think we are on a positive path. We are not quite there yet, but we can be more [on the] offensive where we get out there and focus on getting more members and doing more things for the community because we have our act together.”
New Chamber Board of Directors Chair John Malzone said the negative publicity that the scandal generated was difficult to rebound from.
“You have to remember when that situation happened it was in the paper and that can ruin you,” he said. “There were a lot of people who were not fond of what happened, and we had to do a one-eighty and dig ourselves out of a hole.”
On April 1, the Chamber left its former home on South Lake Boulevard next to Chamber Park and moved about a half-mile up the road to 692 Route 6, upstairs above Bikeway Bike Shop in the Joseph J. Smith Funeral Home building. On Thursday, July 25, the Chamber held the official ribbon-cutting for its new offices.
The move out to Route 6 was precipitated by the town’s purchase of the property on which the old Chamber building sits. The town plans to tear that building down to make way for a municipal parking lot and a small park on the adjacent Swan Cove land.
“[The move] was bittersweet because it was for a good cause,” Celestino said. “We were initially impacted negatively because of that [parking lot/park] project, but we are very much in favor of it.”
Celestino said the Chamber looked at a lot of different possibilities for a new home and reached out to its members for help.
“That’s how we connected with Joe Smith,” he said.
Celestino noted that there were five nonprofits that shared the old Chamber space and the goal was to try to bring some of them along to the new quarters.
“We were able to bring Community Cares with us,” he said, noting that the space is actually a suite of offices with a common conference room they can all share. “We vetted out what we could afford and what would be right for us and try to find something that was central to Mahopac. We also looked at opportunities in Carmel as well because, quite frankly, we are the Carmel/Mahopac Chamber. But this seemed to be the best option, just a half-mile up the road from where we used to be.
“We love it,” he added. “I was not expecting to get as much foot traffic as we’ve been getting. I’m not sure what the reason is.”
Earlier this spring, the Chamber elected new board members and Malzone, who owns Custom Interior Remodeling in Mahopac, was tapped to take over as chairman. Charlie Melchner Jr. of Mahopac Marine and longtime board member is now vice chair. Justin Kilian, GM of Trustco Bank, was tapped as a new member of the board.
“I want to get the community more involved and get a lot more members,” Malzone said of his goals as chairman. “What I’m striving for is for the board itself becoming one. I may be chairman, but that is just a title. We all work together to improve the Chamber, recruit more members, and make our street fairs bigger and better than ever.
“We started a new members committee with the goal to attract new people,” he continued. “We put together a portfolio with all the benefits of becoming a member.”
The Chamber currently has about 360 members—it’s added 25 new ones so far this year—and Malzone said he’d like to reach 400.
“Our goal is to add more value for the members who are part of the Chamber,” Celestino explained. “We are here to help the community and the members of the Chamber. If we do a good job, in theory we should get more new members.”
Celestino said the group’s goal to become the go-to organization for community and business information is slowly coming to fruition.
“I get a lot more phone calls from community members about things going on in the town, a lot of calls about the concerts in the park, the street fair—not vendors, but people who want to come,” he said. “So, I feel like we are becoming more a part of the community because we are getting more feedback and questions. I even got calls about the firemen’s carnival, even though we don’t have anything to do with that. It is like we are becoming the go-to place for information, which is great.”
Malzone said bringing in new blood to both the Chamber’s member roster and the board of directors is key to revitalizing the organization.
“I think we bring a different vibe, a fresh set of eyes,” Malzone said. “We look at things differently. We are loose, and we have great personalities and the members are picking up on that. And they like it. We see it in the numbers—more people are coming to the dinners; more people are coming to the mixers. And it’s different people. Usually, we have the same people. Things have switched up.”
Celestino said that while change was needed for the Chamber to move forward, he couldn’t neglect the group’s heritage.
“We have a great respect for what happened in the past—not the bad past, but the traditions,” he said. “I meet with people who have been a part of this Chamber for more than 25 years and I am open to what they have to say. We have a different perspective on how to move forward, but we have reverence for the past. We are trying to get the best of both worlds. We want that history, but we want to move into the future as well.”