Viola-Straight leaves Chamber to help veterans

— Enterprise file photo by Michael Koff 

Michelle Viola-Straight, shown here at an event at Crossgates mall she promoted to support the military, is stepping down after two-and-a-half years as president of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce. She has revitalized its systems and programming and increased membership by almost half, she said.

GUILDERLAND — Michelle Viola-Straight, who has revitalized the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce during two-and-a-half years as its president and chief executive officer, will leave at the end of this month, to become director of community partnerships at the Veterans & Community Housing Coalition in Ballston Spa. 

“It’s bittersweet,” she said, “but something I could never pass up.” 

Viola-Straight says that, when she took over the chamber, it was “do or die,” as membership and retention were down, there were few programs for members, and the chamber was on the verge of closing its doors. 

A great supporter of the military, Viola-Straight, who has two sons in service, was able to move the chamber in a new direction, to “merge businesses, the military, and the community” in a way that raised the chamber’s profile in the community and the region. 

For instance, one of the accomplishments of which she is proudest is founding the Capital Region Military Awareness Expo at Crossgates Mall and combining it with a program already offered by the Albany County Executive, Daniel McCoy, called “Honor a Living Veteran,” she said. The expo has been held twice so far, she said; the next one will be next June. The choice of Crossgates Mall in Guilderland as a venue made the event widely accessible and brought it visibility, said Viola-Straight. 

Another is an agreement with Crossgates Mall to have the Hometown Heroes banners hung in the mall for one year after they are taken down from the town park, she said. Hometown Heroes is a program the chamber and town of Guilderland launched jointly that brings together the military and local businesses, with banners that honor the service of individual local veterans and that are sponsored by local businesses whose names are also featured on the banners. 

Currently, the chamber is taking down the 2018 banners that had hung in the mall and will be returning them to the families of each veteran, she explained. Meanwhile, the banners that had hung outdoors in the park this year are coming down and will soon be displayed in the mall. 

Another way that she brought in new members and new ideas, Viola-Straight said, was through crossover with other groups, by serving on the boards and task forces of various local organizations. For instance, she said, she was on the board of the Guilderland Public Library from 2017 through 2019 and served on the YMCA council board. She serves on the town of Guilderland’s Land Use Committee. She also was on the Workforce Development Initiative through New York State’s Office of Workforce Development, she said, with legislators and elected officials. 

Viola-Straight cleaned up all of the systems in place at the chamber, she said, and introduced a new software system that made it possible to track membership, programs, and events efficiently. 

Under her leadership, not only did membership climb by almost 50 percent, from 240 to 350, but members have come from places as far-flung as Canada, the Carolinas, and Florida, she said, who are supportive of the work the chamber is doing. 

New members have also come, she said, from neighboring counties like Saratoga, Warren, and Rensselaer, as people have begun to recognize the benefits of a small chamber, “where it’s easier to have introductions made for you,” she said. 

Viola-Straight is leaving to take on the role of director of community partnerships at the Veterans & Community Housing Coalition. 

This organization, she told The Enterprise this week, serves veterans who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or in need of services. The coalition has, she said, one of the only transitional homes for female veterans in the entire country and can provide “wrap-around” services designed to help not only with a place to live but also with connecting to services and jobs. 

Next, the coalition will also open, for women veterans who are risk of becoming homeless, a transitional home in Ballston Spa where they can stay along with their children and receive services. Currently, she said, many veterans who are homeless couch-surf, rotating among the homes of friends, afraid to identify as homeless, for fear their children will be taken away. 

The chamber is beginning now to search for a replacement and already has some “great candidates,” Viola-Straight said. 

She added, “Onwards and upwards.” 

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