Waxahachie Chamber President and CEO Debra Wakeland accepts position in Weatherford
One of Ellis County’s most influential women is stepping away from her reign in Waxahachie.
Debra Wakeland, the CEO and President of Waxahachie’s Chamber of Commerce, announced her resignation Wednesday afternoon. The chamber provides local businesses a network by advocating for the business community on an every-day level.
She’ll be taking the position of Main Street Director in Weatherford, an area in which she grew up just 10 miles from, to help bring in more business and grow the workforce, and more importantly, be with her son, she said.
Her last day is April 1, and though some may think she’ll announce her resignation is all a joke on April Fool’s, she’s quick to reassure it isn’t. Wakeland served 17 years as the Vice-President and Director of Waxahachie’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the rest as the president of the chamber, she said.
Beaming with nothing but pride, and reflecting on 32 years of service to Waxahachie, she opened up about what it’s been like to head a chamber that works well with city officials, her biggest accomplishments and where she thinks Waxahachie will go from here as well as what her own future holds.
The Waxahachie Daily Light: What’s your reasoning behind going to Weatherford?
Wakeland: The No. 1 reason would be my son, living in Paradise, on the family farm. I could see him for lunch, I could be in his life so much more and his career. He’s working in the city of Willow Park, just five minutes from the city of Weatherford, and we’re both going to be in the same department. How could I not really help him? Being an old chamber president, networking is everything. I’m sorry to tell anybody, but if you stop and ask 100 people on the street, the reason they’re in the position they’re in because of who you know.
I wouldn’t have gotten this position in 1984 had I not meet Norm Bell at Owens Corning Fiber Glass as I was going around applying for jobs. Owens Corning faxed over my resume to the chamber, and they called me... From there it just went on to where I am today.
But back to the reasons. My family is there. My sister is in Azle, and we have property on the lake we all grew up on, and so it’s just very easy. It just feels like it’s the right thing to do after 32 years, and I no longer have to focus on making half a million dollars to fund the staff. This will be the first time in 32 years I have not had to earn my salary.
The Daily Light: So, as Main Street Director in Weatherford, what will you be doing there and how is it different from what you do here?
Wakeland: My focus is to be a lobbyist for every business in the central business district. I will assist them in forming a central business association and there are a few vacant buildings, so I’ll be working with economic development to get some business in those buildings, low interest financing and being creative on getting money for folks who might need to take their business to the next level — all of that stuff I’m really good at when it comes to workforce development.
Where I’m going to have to bone up on is I have this Main Street book when I went through training in ‘84, and I’m sure some things have changed. So I’m going to have to review that book, and they’re going to send me to training in Austin for a week, because the laws have changed.
The Daily Light: In your 15 years as president, what has been the most exciting thing about the position for you?
Wakeland: Probably the most exciting thing is just seeing the growth and being involved in some really great programs, like the building of the Waxahachie Civic Center and all the different bonds that we’ve passed. I really think we were a factor in getting all of those bonds passed because we always contributed monetary donations — cash — and we always worked behind the scenes, on the radio shows and explaining to the seniors over 65 that this isn’t going to affect your taxes. Get out and vote, this is going to benefit your taxes. This most recent bond package for the school district (a $125 million bond passed in May 2015), I think we were really instrumental.
When we go to all the conferences, I see so many chambers that do not get a long with the city. They do not have a good relationship, and can’t just walk in the superintendent’s office. Waxahachie has a really unique, great way in which we all push up to the table and everyone respects everyone, and knows that this person brings this talent, that she’s good at this — that we all understand we need a little bit of everyone in the room. No one wants to take total credit.
Like the Texas Country Reporter Festival, in landing that event, that was probably the highlight of my life that had the most return on investment when I was the CVB director.
The Daily Light: Are you going to miss seeing Waxahachie grow? The city is at this point where it’s exploding.
Wakeland: We had the chamber’s best year ever last year in so many different areas, and this year I’ve seen the Oscars (Waxahachie’s annual Academy Awards banquet which honors local businesses and citizens) through, the Women’s Expo through and both of those netted double. And sharing downtown revitalization, I’d have to say that’s one of the top five things I’m proud of. Being chamber president, I chaired the downtown revitalization for the city’s strategic plan, and if you look at it now, that’s the big thing I’m going to say, “Oh” to when all those businesses starts opening. I’m going to have a lot of pride knowing I helped, and that I was part of the team that got the life on the square.
I’m not moving to Nicaragua, and that’s what I’ve told several people. I’m an hour and a half to the west. We’re not selling our house. Joe Wakeland is still going to be “Coach Wakeland.” He’s not retiring, and the house will be there forever until Joe dies. This is home and he has 1,000 acres, and this has been his— it’s where he grew up. I came here, and his dad had a farm in Avalon and his grandfather had a gymnasium named after him.
I’ve had so many people say, ‘This is your home town.’ I was adopted (by the city) and everybody was really welcoming and I’ve had so many friends, some who have passed away in the 32 years, and it’s been wonderful.
But I’m going to be back here, I’m just going to be on a different schedule. In the old days, I was going up there every weekend, and now I’ll be coming back here some.
The Daily Light: What advice do you have for the incoming president?
Wakeland: I have these three monkeys, that I’ve already packed away. They say “See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.” And that better be the case. In this industry, you have no idea when you’re going to need someone. Being nice is the very best thing you can be. The other thing would be to really try to listen to everyone, and shop locally. I’m really crazy about that.
The Daily Light: When you look back on your 32 years, what do you reflect on? Is there anything anything you wish you still could have done that maybe you didn’t get to?
Wakeland: I am so proud that we made such a good amount on our auction last year and we were able to invest $125,00 into this (chamber of commerce) building. I’m so proud, and I have people say, “You spent all that for the hard wood and took off the popcorn ceiling and all new lighting, and you’re making it beautiful and you’re not going to get to enjoy it?”
We are the front door of the community, and I would hope in 10 years to see 10 people working here and them selling this building and making $1 million. Who knows? Maybe they’ll be able to connect it to the hospital and we always talked about building another multi-use center in the city, where it was a little more of an outdoor arena.
And then there’s the highway. To know from ‘84 on, we’ve been able to work with TxDOT (The Texas Department of Transportation) on getting that section of the highway (an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 35E) renovated. For us to have the groundbreaking just a few weeks ago — I mean I go down the list, and look at the (city’s) strategic plan, and I got to see all the different areas. We did every single thing in that plan. I was on board when we started Leadership Waxahachie... and we’ve had 20 great projects come out of 20 years of Leadership Waxahachie.
I just can’t think of the next big plan, I mean the new high school is underway.
I didn’t even mention the Superconducting Super Collider. I was really involved in that. The bidding on that was so much work and then when we announced that we had it, and every year after that, I was in charge of all the trade shows — San Francisco, New Orleans, Atlanta, Las Vegas. I just got to go to those symposiums and invite everyone in town to go to those symposiums. I mean, think about it. The world’s largest atom smashing that was going to find a cure for cancer, and I was on the ground floor of that and got to really be involved in all of the sign-ups. I’m really happy about that, because at the time, we didn’t even realize that was really as huge as it was until it started going downhill... It was like flying over on an airplane that’s just dumping millions and millions of dollars. That’s a big disappointment, but it was out of our hands. It wasn’t our failure, it was the federal government supposedly overspending on the project. But if that hadn’t happened, we would absolutely be on our fifth high school and we’d be as great as Southlake.
The Daily Light: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the community as you walk out the door?
Wakeland: Whenever I visited with the group who offered me this (Weatherford) position, I just went into it knowing I love my job and I love everyone I work with. I’ve got the greatest staff. If I hadn’t been selected or if they didn’t want me or my talent, and what I was to bring, it was going to be great because I’m happy right here. But all those other things are just so important to me.
Weatherford and Waxahachie have so much in common... And everything that’s worked here, I’m going to take it there and I’ve got some great ideas. It’s just time, and it was fun, and it’s not over. I’m not dead. I still have all my friends and I’ll still be in and out, so it’s a good opportunity and it’s going to be fun to get someone else in here with new ideas.
The new chamber president will be selected by a search committee headed by chamber chairman Kevin Chester, and Debra said though the search for the next president is expected to go beyond state lines as the committee reaches out to other chamber associations, she hopes the chamber selects someone local, someone who understands just how special Waxahachie is.
For those interested in applying or learning more about the position, contact Chester at Kevin.Chester@lgbs.com.
Contact Shelly Conlon at 469-517- 1456 or email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ shellyconlonwdl.