FACES OF CAPE COD – Wendy Northcross, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce

Wendy Northcross is one face you’ll often see on Cape Cod at any number of events. Northcross is the Chief Executive Officer of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. Although she wasn’t born here, she was raised on the Cape and has been with the organization since 1997 and a chamber executive since 1988.

“Having grown up on Cape Cod, I witnessed people struggling to earn a living and make ends meet or find a career that didn’t take them off-Cape,” she said. “Before moving to South Yarmouth at the age of 13, I had lived in Michigan and outside of Boston, and could see the differences between these places. That concern for community well-being eventually led me to volunteer in downtown Hyannis revitalization issues, which eventually led to applying when the Hyannis Area Chamber was seeking a new executive director in 1988.”

Her volunteerism in Hyannis, including organizing the annual Hyannis Street Festival and Christmas parades, and helping to change regulations around parking and outdoor dining bans, laid the groundwork for her interest in running an organization like a chamber which, she added, “is powered by invested volunteers, working toward a common goal of improving their community.”

Immediately after her graduation from Cape Cod Community College, Northcross left the Cape and went on to hold positions in large corporations in Providence and Hartford. Eventually, she moved back, and has remained ever since. Her drive to move forward in business found her constantly advancing up the corporate ladder, and it was when she was working for Bank of New England that she decided to pursue an executive position with the Hyannis Area Chamber of Commerce.

“My banking experience was in residential lending, and to this day people will stop me on the street and tell me I helped them buy their first home,” said Northcross. “That’s a very gratifying thing to happen, all these years later. Over the course of the last 35 years, I have rigorously pursued professional development opportunities. I have attained professional certification as a chamber executive, received a scholarship for a two-year course of study in sustainable economic development, and have attended seminars and multi-day conferences on everything from destination marketing to organizational management to effective government relations. I believe one never stops learning, and I was fortunate to have good mentors who encouraged me along the way.”

To have an executive role in any chamber of commerce, she said, you need qualities like humility, diplomacy, caring and thick skin. People skills are a big part of the job, she added, and not taking yourself too seriously (although the work is serious) is also a big help. In the world of chambers you also need to be constantly learning, scanning the news from many different sources, paying attention to the community needs at large, but the business needs specifically. As a business-led organization, it requires its chief executive to be aware of public policy matters that may impact your membership. A great deal of time is spent educating others that business needs are important, and employment in a region is critical to community health, she said.

“The vision for the chamber as an organization is inextricably linked to the needs and desires of Cape Codders for themselves and their towns. Right now we have four very strong pillars of work; 1.) Member Services – increasing business for them by increasing their visibility and their sustainable business practices; 2.) Advocacy & Education – using the collective strength of our membership to advocate for policies and laws that will support and improve our business community, thus the community at large; 3.) Destination Marketing – to maintain a thriving and sustainable hospitality industry through increased visitor market share and protecting our environmental assets which lure them here; and 4.) Blue Economy – to catalyze a resilient and diverse economy through the Blue Economy plan.”

In addition to these four pillars, she added, there is a fifth area of work that speaks to the sustainability of the organization – through professional development of staff, adopting balanced budgets and maintaining reserves for recessionary times, increasing the skills of the board and seeking top notch board leadership, Conducting an annual strategic review of the needs and opportunities of the Cape and its businesses is critical to stay relevant and focused.

Northcross said the future of Cape Cod and the greater region around us is a topic of much discussion and work at the chamber.

“Four years ago we challenged ourselves to think about the ‘next big thing’ for Cape Cod. You see, in 1920 the Cape had suffered a huge out-migration and the state feared it would become a ‘vast wasteland’,” she said. “They commissioned a study that recommended development of a travel and tourism industry. The chamber was born shortly thereafter, and we got to work implementing that vision. It’s now 100 years later, and so the discussion turned to ‘what’s next?’ We then rolled up our sleeves to develop a plan that would help the local economy pivot toward more diversity and resiliency.”

The next big idea was dubbed the Blue Economy, a name that has since stuck. Essentially, the Blue Economy Plan (found here: www.bluecapecod.org) recommends that we leverage our significant water assets and grow new types of economic opportunity, said Northcross. The plan is based on our significant coastline and fresh water ponds, our world-class community of scientists and researchers, and our burgeoning wastewater infrastructure requirement which will invest billions in new systems. All these (and more) present tremendous opportunity.

“With more than 1,000 miles of coastline in our Blue Economy ‘region,’ which includes the islands and southern Plymouth County, and home to institutions like WHOI in Woods Hole and the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown (just to name two), and our coastal resiliency planning, the Cape is well positioned to be the epi-center of a new Blue Economy.

“And we are not just planning the Blue Economy – we are actively working the plan,” she continued. “With a major grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Seaport Economic Council, we hired talented people to finalize the plan, and then begin the action of seeing it into reality. We have established a Cape Cod Blue Economy Foundation to seek resources to grow that work, and we have major projects in the pipeline already. For example, in January we will host the first-ever WaterWORKS event for local high school students to expose them to the types of jobs that are currently here in the Blue Economy, and those that are coming. We have designed a Blue Experiential Trail (dubbed Expedition: Blue!) that will guide visitors and residents alike throughout the region to discover and learn exactly what comprises the Blue Economy. We have applied for funding to establish an innovation “wheelhouse” in Woods Hole that leads science to commerce, and are compiling the venture capitalists network to help fund that pipeline of work.

“We are actively marketing and promoting the region as a place people want to live and work in the Blue Economy, and are being asked to present at national conferences explaining our vision. And we are lobbying every day for the assets and people that we need to make this all a reality – like retaining Woods Hole as a major center for marine tech and research – keeping the NOAA headquarters here, pushing for water quality testing funding, advocating for wastewater infrastructure funds, demanding the US Army Corps get going on modern-day canal bridges to accommodate our Blue Economy as well as our mature visitor economy.”

Northcross has experienced a number of wonderful moments while serving the Cape Cod communities. Some of the high points, she said, include the opening of the JFK Hyannis Museum, and seeing it grow into the amazing institution it has become; the ribbon cutting
(or in this case an electrical cord) on the Lorusso Technology Building at Cape Cod Community College; and, most recently, the advancement of the plans for the Canal bridges.

“(It’s) been very gratifying,” she said. “Just a few short years ago there were NO plans by any government agency to deal with this critical piece of aging roadway. The state and federal approval of the 208 Plan Update was a proud moment, capping years of advocacy work and coalition building (with sometimes former opponents) to help protect Cape Cod’s water quality, thus its protect property values and its desirability as a place to live, work, play and create. And my recent invitation to stand on a world stage in Sydney Australia, speaking about our chamber works with others across the USA on sustainable energy policies was certainly something I’ll never forget.”

The best part, she added, has been working with and learning from amazing people – thousands of people from all walks of life. “I continue to be awed by people who volunteer to keep Cape Cod a truly special place….like no other on the planet. I learned the hard way that not all these influencers were fans of the chamber or me, but nevertheless, I learned much from them and they helped forge a stronger chamber because they cared enough to share an opinion, or give their talent and their time.”

Northcross and her family live in West Barnstable with a winter-time view of Sandy Neck. “I love that it is so rural, but yet so close to everything. Living in the Old King’s Highway District has taught me a lot about the value of protection of our history and culture. I feel very blessed to own a home on Cape Cod and live in a community that cares. My mom lives in the little cottage next door, and my husband, Van, has recently retired from Cape Cod Healthcare. Both are making retirement look really enticing!”

She stresses the importance of a strong support system at home, and credits her husband on being a key component in her professional success. “Always patient with the long hours and time away from home, and always believing in my abilities and standing by me during success and failure. He’s the rock on which I stand!”

Friday nights with her husband are sacred and fiercely protected, she said. “It’s our pizza night, where we decompress from the week, and then tune it out to focus on family and homemaking. Van and I love to travel to see the world, and my career has afforded me many opportunities to do that. We have grandkids in Maine, and try to hang out with them every chance we get.

“My hobbies are few, but include reading, gardening and genealogy. My husband’s grandmother did a great deal of work (pre-internet) on the Northcross family tree (whose founder arrived in Watertown in 1623) and we have catalogued a lot of photos from the family attic in Tennessee to match up to the on-line tree. On my side of family, I recently discovered that Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke is a great grandfather. Since I was born in Michigan and my husband in Tennessee, we are finding it great fun to figure out how close to our roots we really live!”

About Ann Luongo

Ann Luongo is the Marketing Writer and Lifestyle Reporter for CapeCod.com, and has been writing for Cape Cod and South Shore publications for over 15 years.

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