Ritter named grand marshal of 2008 De Soto Days Festival Parade
Just after Sara Ritter had pegged the number of De Soto Chamber of Commerce members Friday at 182, an insurance agent walked in asking to become a member.
"That makes 183 - 186 really, because I have three more I'm waiting to mail in memberships."
The kind of leadership that has helped the De Soto Chamber of Commerce double its membership during Ritter's six years as executive director of the chamber and De Soto Economic Development Council.
"My goal was within five years we would double our membership," she said. "We did that. That's a testament to the board and the members."
The chamber has been on a recent roll. For two consecutive years, the De Soto chamber has been on the Kansas City Business Journal's list of top-25 metropolitan chambers and is annually recognized for its membership turnout at the yearly Kansas Speedway networking event.
Those accomplishments were among the reasons Ritter was selected as the grand marshal of the 2008 De Soto Days Parade.
"Her name was mentioned and it was the consensus of the committee to name her grand marshal," said De Soto Days Festival Committee Chairwoman Raheema Sampson. "She was a good fit with our theme 'Into the Future.'
"I know from experience she's easy to work with and willing to help any new business or any new person to the community.'
Sampson emphasized Ritter's work with downtown revitalization and in organizing the chamber's blues concert, which will combine with the barbecue contest Darrel Zimmerman introduced to form a single event that will open the De Soto Riverfest Park on Oct. 10 and 11.
The blues part of the coming festival grew from a chamber musical fundraiser Shannan Nelson introduced when he was chamber president. It was current Chamber President Dave Moore's idea to change the focus of that event to a blues and barbecue event.
"Dave added his little spin on it," Ritter said. "I'll be the first to admit I thought it was a little crazy. It now has a life of its own. Our goal all along was to get people into the community and this has sure been a way of doing that."
Her grand marshal designation, in Ritter's view, was recognition of the chamber and particularly its board and leadership. Just as the ideas of Nelson and Moore helped develop and shape the successful blues and barbecue chamber fundraiser, past presidents Betty Cannon and Dan Gulley and boards members all contributed skills and talents that helped her succeed and the chamber grow, she said.
"It's as team effort," she said. "It's not one person; it's the group."
In that context, the tie to the festival's theme makes sense, Ritter said. She sees a continuum of progress from initiatives the chamber and EDC undertook with the city.
Ritter came to De Soto from the economic development arm of Aquila Inc., and was there at the urging of John Engelmann, her former boss at the Southwest Johnson County Economic Development Corporation.
Her first day at Aquila was Sept. 11, 2001. Ritter said Aquila was soon feeling the pinch in the economic downtown that followed the terrorist attacks and the fallout from the Enron fiasco. Another factor was the chance to be closer to newborn daughter Hayley and her son Dylan, now an eighth-grader at Lexington Trails Middle School. So when the De Soto chamber opportunity opened, she returned to an economic development position in town where her husband, Kevin, is fire chief and she's a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, a member of the De Soto VFW 6654 Ladies Auxiliary and Rotary Club.
But Ritter said she still stayed in touch with her mentor Engelmann.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be in this position," she said. "
After she started in De Soto, the city, chamber and EDC partnered in a number of initiatives patterned off those done for the Southwest Johnson County EDC. One was a targeted industry study, which - among other things - suggested the city conduct a community housing assessment."
"The CHAT (housing assessment) said we needed to focus on the downtown," she said. "That led to the downtown revitalization plan. That told us we should focus on the riverfront. From that we got Riverfest Park.
"In that sense, I guess we are 'Into the Future.' I think there is a great deal of satisfaction at what we've accomplished in partnership with the city."
Now, the chamber will be the host of the opening event at Riverfest Park. For hometown girl Ritter, that adds to the responsibility. A white board on the chamber's office's wall, assigning responsibility of such details as parking, tickets and auction items reveals the amount of preparation and thought that is going into the October event.
"There is pressure being the inaugural event, but our board is passionate about making this a success not only for the chamber but the city as well," she said.
The excitement of the new park contrast with the current economic climate, in which Ritter said many chamber members were not exempt from difficulties. One thing the chamber offers De Soto's businesses in tough times is increased networking opportunities, she said.
The De Soto chamber has been the host of an annual summer networking gathering that includes chamber members from as many as five neighboring communities. In addition, the chamber has had informal network gatherings a member business and its monthly meetings attracts those in surrounding communities who are members to the local chamber because they have an interest in the community, she said.
Meanwhile, the chamber keeps "pressing along," preparing for better times and the inevitable day Johnson County's development bubble expands to De Soto.
"We're going to keep growing and getting better," she said of the chamber. "We'll be there to catch it."