Bold and bright: Chamber director Lisa Konicki capitalizes on cool ideas

Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce director Lisa Konicki recently conducted a facade improvement grant program to help downtown Westerly businesses upgrade their signage, windows and decorative paint.
Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce director Lisa Konicki recently conducted a facade improvement grant program to help downtown Westerly businesses upgrade their signage, windows and decorative paint. Seth Jacobson photo

This is a story about inspiration arising from tragedy.

It's a story about the kind of community we nurture in our hearts, and events which become cherished family traditions.

It's a story about the families in the Westerly-Pawcatuck area who are going to get a little extra help this winter thanks to a quirky fundraiser, and a host of brave men.

It's the story of bright new paint on downtown storefronts and new signs and windows along historic streets.

It's the story of how a loving father made a profound difference in the life of a little girl he never got to meet.

It's the story of a lovely lady, and as with many stories worth telling, her character stands out.

Lisa Konicki, the 15-year director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce, has the qualities you would expect to find in someone whose job involves connecting people and promoting local business. She is friendly and engaging, detail-oriented and energetic.

"I feel like I was made for this job," she said. "I can't imagine even wanting another one. I live it. I love it. I love this community."

She and her dedicated staff are the force behind celebrated happenings, like The Virtu Art Show, the Rubber Duck Race, Riverglow, and Santa's yearly arrival via firetruck downtown, as well as initiatives that get people talking, like the installation of bike racks downtown and the upcoming 2013 Men of Westerly calendar.

Tricia Cunningham, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, described Konicki as someone generous with her time and energy.

"I've known Lisa for 12 years now and in the chamber world, she's always has been a leader and brought new ideas and she's wonderful about sharing her ideas. ... When we started our Mystic dollars program, we talked with Lisa; last year we partnered on Fusion, an amazing arts event, and now she's helping us bring 40 Under Forty (a program recognizing young professionals) to eastern Connecticut," Cunningham said.

But beyond Konicki's enthusiasm, her achievements are marked by two things: She thinks big. And she doesn't take no for an answer.

Just ask Rori Marston, vice president of ocean and marine sensing at Hydronalix. The Arizona-based company is behind the invention of E.M.I.L.Y., the remote-controlled, robotic lifeguard that can be used to reach a struggling person in less than two minutes, even in rough water.

E.M.I.L.Y. was in the final stages of testing when Marston received a call from Konicki. She had seen the device lauded by Popular Science magazine as one of the top inventions of the year.

"I get this call from Lisa and she says, 'We'd like to purchase your boat.'" Marston said. "I told her, 'Well, it's not on the market yet.'"

She was - in a word - persistent.

"I finally went to my partners and said 'This lady is going to hurt us if we don't sell her a boat,'" he recalled, laughing.

Konicki raised $22,000 in three weeks and purchased two the day they became available, making the Westerly town beaches the first community on the East Coast to acquire them. The news made the Associated Press, the front page of Nasdaq, NBC and The Huffington Post.

In September, Marston was on hand for an E.M.I.L.Y. presentation Konicki organized for regional public safety officials and search and rescue workers. Personnel from as far as East Haven, Conn., and Provincetown, Mass., attended the demonstration held at the Windjammer and Atlantic Beach Casino Resort in Misquamicut.

In her welcoming remarks, Konicki made it clear the purpose of the program was public safety, not sales.

"We don't get a commission if you buy one, and this wasn't Rori's idea, it was mine. ... We want to have the safest beaches for the people of our community," she said.

"That's the kind of thing we like to get behind," said Cal Lord of the Westerly Rotary Club, which contributed $5,000 toward the purchase of the watercraft.

E.M.I.L.Y. — which stands for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving LanYard — is a proven vessel. She was used to rescue a father and son in a heavy rip current off the coast of Oregon this summer. She is lightweight, but can bear the weight of several adults. She travels 28 miles an hour and can be operated at a distance of four football fields. She works after being thrown out of a helicopter at 60 feet. (Yes, they even tested that.)

And she is adorned with a rose for her namesake, a community-minded young woman named Emily, whose 14-year-old life was cut short by a malicious hit-and-run.

"She was a friend of my partner's son," Marston explained. "The kind of girl who wanted to help people, who was always doing projects for others. We went to her parents and said, 'We have this device and we believe it will save lives and we want to name it for her.'"

Konicki had heard the story of the real-life Emily several times. But as Marston spoke to the crowd gathered in the sunlight, her eyes — and those of several others — filled up with tears.

Family ties

Konicki speaks of her own children with obvious love and pride. Her oldest daughter is a freshman in college, and her son and younger daughter attend middle school. She adopted her younger daughter at 11 months.

Having a child through adoption was something Konicki planned for and dreamed of since her own childhood.

"My dad was adopted and he was the most awesome father a person could have," she said. "Growing up, I just kept thinking, 'Who are these amazing people who did this for my dad and helped craft who he is today?' I knew when I was about 12 it was something I had to do. The older I got, the stronger that felt. It was a calling."

She would tell her dad that she planned to adopt someday. He would respond that it was a wonderful idea but reassured her that life might take her in a different direction and that would be perfectly OK.

Her father died at age 50, before his grandchildren were born.

"My daughter is phenomenal. He would have absolutely loved her spirit," she said.

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of the phone call that brought Lisa's youngest to her family.

"I can't even explain that journey and what it felt like the day they called," she said. "Every day you come home and you want that message light to be blinking. You never forget it."

Ideas at work

In her professional life, Konicki is responsible for tourism marketing, community events and promoting local business growth and development. Her day can range from coordinating a Ralph Lauren photo shoot in Watch Hill, to meeting with the owners of a local nursery to strategize a new event — a butterfly pavilion on tap for next summer.

On a recent morning, she found herself in a local fitness center, joking around with a photographer and three very muscular, very good-humored, and very naked men.

It was a photo shoot for the 2013 Men of Westerly-Pawcatuck Area calendar, a semi-annual fundraiser that benefits a variety of local food pantries, family assistance centers and shelters. Konicki is always on the lookout for new ideas, and borrowed this one up from a similar venture in Wickford, R.I. The previous editions raised roughly $20,000.

The calendars will be unveiled at a launch party Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Granite Theater in downtown Westerly. Tickets are $35 and include a calendar, wine, food, autographs, and a runway show as the "models" are introduced. (Call 401-596-7761 for reservations or visit www.westerlychamber.org.)

Later that morning she walked through downtown, handing out checks and taking photos of repainted storefronts, new signage and new windows as part of The Chamber's Facade Improvement Program, which awarded $7,000 to 15 local businesses.

"It's like being an entrepreneur in a lot of ways," Konicki said. "I come up with the ideas and research and present them to the board [of directors] and for 15 years, they've given me the green light."

It helps, she said, to have a supportive base that is open to offbeat and innovative ways of connecting people.

Those who know Konicki say her character meshes perfectly with her community.

"Westerly is one of the most interesting, diverse and uniquely situated towns — an unparalleled asset to our region," said Peter Glankoff, executive vice president of marketing and public affair at Mystic Aquarium.

"Lisa works tirelessly, and in doing so helps to advance the possibilities of regional thinking and collaboration. She champions her region, and in doing so has herself become a true champion," he added.

Konicki has championed the chamber through some tough times. The flooding that damaged the downtown area in March of 2010 was particularly devastating, she said.

But characteristically, she saw an opportunity to drum up both community spirit and concrete support.

"There is no other chamber out there that raised money like we did," she explained, "We had car washes, celebrity bartending nights, you name it, so we could give it to the businesses that were affected by the flooding. We raised $64,000 in one month. In 15 years at this chamber, nothing felt better than walking into a business that had been under six feet of water, and handing people a check, and saying, 'Here's something. Here's some help."

Seth Jacobson photo
Seth Jacobson photo
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