Sheri Heiney Shares Her Vision
The current president and CEO of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce is not a bit shy about sharing her affection for Prescott and the region. Residents since December 2016, she and her husband John Heiney, community outreach manager for the City of Prescott, say they are “living their dream. We have our little ranch, we have our garden, our rescued mini-pony and mini-donkey. We have a spoiled Shih Tzu, Belia; and the best possible jobs anyone could have. We absolutely love Prescott.”
The Michigan native says she and John had successful careers in Michigan, where she was president of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce for 17 years. She earlier had attended Muskegon Business College and Davenport University and studied tourism and hospitality. That led her into the chamber of commerce profession. She also has real estate and insurance licenses, is an accredited small business consultant — and is a certified master gardener. But for over 20 years, with family in Sedona, she had been visiting the West. “It was our longtime ambition to move to this area — and we finally are here. It’s the first time we have lived out of Michigan.”
The parents of four adult children — three daughters and a son — and grandparents of four feel blessed they finally live where they’ve wanted to be. “We’re home, we love our family and pets, and I love to garden and hike in the area,” Sheri says.
She loves everything about Prescott but especially is fond of the downtown area around the historic Courthouse Plaza. “I get to share my thoughts about Prescott regularly through my monthly radio show on KQNA. I also meet terrific people through the Prescott Business CEO Roundtable Committee.
“My family has already created many fond memories since we moved here. This is our forever home.”
Prescott LIVING: How did you find Prescott?
Sheri Heiney: My original field of study was hospitality management. That kind of evolved into the chamber profession where I’ve been a professional now for 28 years. This is my third chamber where I’ve served as president and CEO.
John and I had a dream to move here to Arizona once our children were grown. We called what we had our 10-year plan, and our plan was to move to Arizona because we loved it so much. We have family that already lived in the Sedona area. We spent all of our vacation time out here. We just really fell in love with Arizona.
It took us 11 years, but we made it. I found out about the chamber position through a headhunter. What was fun about that was we had just been out here for a visit with our family. What I didn’t know at the time was that I sent my resume on the last day they were being accepted.
When I had my first interview, a phone interview, I had been with my previous chamber for 17 years, so I kind of thought I bombed at my interview. It felt like I was out of practice.
When I had the second interview, John decided he might want to look around here in the area as well. That’s when the position he’s currently in was posted — City of Prescott community outreach manager. So I went through the second interview and flew out here on my dime for the third interview.
By the time I was getting ready to go back to the airport, I got a call from Sanford Cohen from the chamber. He said it was a unanimous vote. They wanted to give me the job and asked me if I could come back and get the details squared away. We did that. By the time I was on the plane, I had accepted the position.
The day we were moving here — Christmas Eve day — John got the call from the city that they wanted to offer him the position. We were in Chicago at 12 noon on Christmas Eve day when John heard the news. We arrived here the day after Christmas and found a place to live — not easy. But we found an apartment and were moved in that Friday.
Prescott LIVING: You’ve since moved out of the apartment into a home on a little bit of acreage and now have a growing menagerie.
Sheri Heiney: We were kind of starting over. We tried to decide how we wanted to live our dream. We didn’t take anything off the table. We fell in love with this property out in the country. We never had that before.
We have our little ranch, our little garden and life is good. We’re living our best dream out there enjoying our home, which we’ve been in for four years now.
Prescott LIVING: You’re the head of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce. Things were going really well when you arrived. The economy was booming and then COVID hit. How has it been for the chamber this last year and a half? Are you staying steady, growing? Is the business community faltering? How have things been for the chamber and the Prescott business community as a whole?
Sheri Heiney: I’ll start off with our chamber. It is a nonprofit organization, so we’re a 501(c)(6). We also have a foundation. That’s a strong blessing to have, the 501(c)(3) support system. Our members and our board have just finished our three-year strategic plan. We’re now initiating that plan.
When I first started, we immediately went into a strategic planning process because we wanted to know what the membership wanted and needed for businesses to stay healthy and grow.
I’m thankful for that because it’s hard to predict when there’s going to be a pandemic. Certainly in our lifetime, this was a first. And the chamber’s had a huge role in sharing information during the pandemic.
We immediately reached out to many partners within Yavapai County. There was a group established of all the chambers, all the economic development folks, the colleges, all of us. We were meeting weekly to discuss how to help our businesses, how to help the community. That was a wonderful resource. We went into sharing resources, sharing what the needs are from the business community to our state legislators.
That’s how we learned how we can really help our businesses during this pandemic. Many of our members stepped up, gave us input, which we were able to take straight to the Governor’s Office and actually have some impact.
We are constantly listening to what the needs of the business community are and trying to reconcile those opportunities with all the resources we can band together. I would say communication and collaboration were key, during that time. We also worked closely with the Yavapai County Health Department. Everybody got together. We discussed how to move forward if we were going to have community events — how that would look, what we needed to do.
That’s how we came up with “Save Our Bars” when the executive order came through to close the bars. They had no source of revenue. Our foundation came up with that campaign, which really helped save our bars, especially on our famous Whiskey Row.
We continue to seek such opportunities even today. We also really stepped up our communication, and we’ve partnered with the city to help our businesses. We’re currently working with the Prescott Cares program, where the city got $427,000 in emergency federal funding to help individuals and businesses. Our foundation is processing the applications.
We offer mini-videos to help our businesses promote themselves. We were really helping with who’s open, who’s not. Buying locally has always been our messaging, but we really pushed it during that time to help keep our businesses stable during the heat of closure.
Meanwhile, we were affected by that. We needed to close our Visitor Center to keep things safe. We also pivoted and had networking groups online. We had more than 6,000 members participate in networking via Zoom. When we did have community events, we were able to have some of our community events outside. We followed proper CDC guidelines and what the county had requested we do.
Today we haven’t had any contact tracing aligned to the events, which we’re very proud of. We will continue to work with everyone to make sure everything is safe. We had to make the unfortunate decision in the winter — when things were really bad — to postpone some of our big signature events for we knew it was the right thing to do. But we have been working really hard to make sure that the resources are available to help our business community. That’s our main goal.
So the chamber constantly evolved with the changes and kept moving things forward in a positive way. For example, “OK, we can’t meet in person, we’ll meet via Zoom. Businesses were forced to close. We’ll help get them the information they need to get the PPP (Payment Protection Plan), EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan), etc. to stay in business.” It was a constant evolution and remaking of the Chamber of Commerce during the troubling times.
It absolutely was the one thing that we do to this day: have hand sanitizer and masks and resources available for our businesses that they can pick up at no charge. That’s in addition to phase 2 of the Prescott Cares program where any business or individual that has been affected by COVID can still get some reimbursement and some relief. Our phase 1 was very successful.
I will tell you that many of the people we helped were so happy and tearful and excited that they were able to get some continued relief. Because some people fell through the cracks with all of this and maybe they didn’t qualify. It’s still evolving as to how to help businesses.
Prescott LIVING: Now there’s still funding available, correct?
Sheri Heiney: We’re in phase 2 of that. We have applications available right now. People can go to prescott.org and get applications. Even if you’re an individual affected or a business, we’re still giving away grants to help people to navigate through this.
Prescott LIVING: And membership is not required?
Sheri Heiney: Oh gosh, no. No. And during the pandemic, when we could, we would extend membership to folks so they could still be involved. We understood people were being affected financially, all of us were. But we didn’t want them to miss out on communication and such because they couldn’t pay their membership. So we extended membership to those in need as well.
Prescott LIVING: How has the chamber grown during this time?
Sheri Heiney: The key to that has been our foundation. We knew this with our strategic plan. The foundation, the 501(c)(3) arm, has the capacity to really help the chamber and the business community at large. It’s broad enough where it can really make a difference. In our three-year plan, we’re leaning toward the foundation to really assist in helping grow the area, to really help support the business community and the chamber with the changing needs. We’ve been actively going after grants. We’ve been actively looking at ways to partner with people so we can provide the best resources possible.
Prescott LIVING: What do you see as an area of growth potential for the chamber — both short-term and longer-term?
Sheri Heiney: Our strategic plan is to continue to bring resources to help strengthen the businesses — that is, seeking collaboration and working together to find those solutions.
We also have an HR committee. We understand that workforce has been challenged. Workforce housing has been challenged. That’s the feedback from our business community. I think our most important mission right now is to listen to everyone and see what the needs are, identify everything that is needed, and then seek those resources and collaborate where we need to really bring those resources to the community.
Prescott LIVING: The chamber is run by a board of directors. You are assisted by volunteers. How many people sit on the board?
Sheri Heiney: We have 15 on our chamber board. On our foundation board, we have six. And there are six employees on our staff. We have right around 45 people who volunteer. We have volunteers for our Visitors Center and our Ambassador Committees. We have a lot of folks who volunteer for events like running our Christmas Parade and all of that. We average around 300 cumulative volunteers helping us annually. We always need volunteers because we have a lot going on.
Prescott LIVING: How can somebody become a volunteer?
Sheri Heiney: For the Visitors Center, they would get in touch with staff member Robert Coombs. He will interview them and walk them through the process. For ambassadors, we have an application process and criteria that they look at. We want people who want to be involved who just want to really connect with the business community and to be of service. Then we have folks volunteer to help with events. There are lots and lots of opportunity. We have over 100 events throughout the year, so we’re always looking for folks who make people feel welcome. That’s our goal.
Prescott LIVING: Has the chamber membership grown since you first took over as president?
Sheri Heiney: Absolutely. That’s one thing we’re very proud of. In January of 2020, before Covid, we were a little over 1,000 members. Now we’re right around 970. One thing I’d like to share is that we have a very positive retention rate. Our current year-to-date retention rate is 93.4%, and our 12-month retention rate is 84%. Those are great numbers.
That speaks to the programming and connectivity we have, the welcoming atmosphere we create and our caring. We are all here to help each other. I think during the pandemic that was one of the things that warmed my heart. All of us — we’re in this together — we stayed together. We communicated and articulated what was needed and helped resolve those issues as best we could.
Prescott LIVING: Has your budget increased along with the membership?
Sheri Heiney: Obviously, our events contribute some to our budget, so we were affected by not having events in 2020. We have seen increases through the foundation by bringing in grants so that we can help our businesses. So that piece has grown. We’re being really active in bringing in resources we can turn around and give back out to the business community. That’s what we’ve been working toward — collaboration and working smarter.
Our budget has increased since I started, for sure. It was certainly hit during COVID. But it’s slowly coming back as we’re able to conduct business in a normal sense.
I should say “the new normal.” Whatever that looks like. We want to keep an eye on everything and make sure we keep everybody healthy. We keep commerce going along with that.
Prescott LIVING: Now Arizona is seeing growth in population, and business growth. What are you seeing as the major growth sectors in Prescott?
Sheri Heiney: We’re hopeful. I belong to WACE, the Western Association of Chamber Executives, which includes 21 states and Canada. And I’m also the chair of the Arizona Chamber Executives. All the chambers are experiencing change in patterns of how people are living and working. Certainly I think the biggest change has been the pandemic. People are now discovering you can work from home. You can live in your beautiful destination and still have a career. It’s something we’re keeping an eye on — people who may want to relocate to our market because of the beauty of it and what it has to offer.
The one thing that we see is that people really enjoy being outdoors. And I feel the Prescott area — the region — is a place people want to be. We want to see a diversity of workforce so we can have sustainable jobs. We want those to be the right kind of jobs that don’t use all of our resources but provide opportunities.
You see companies like CP Technologies coming in. We see the health care market as a great opportunity for jobs. We’ve been a tourism destination for a long time, and we still will be. When you think of how many visitors come to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon and everything that surrounds it, I see we have an opportunity to diversify the workforce. That will help stabilize and create livable wages for individuals in our region.
Prescott LIVING: We touched on the community interaction but did not go into specifics with other entities such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University or Yavapai College, or the Northern Arizona Council of Governments (NACOG).
Sheri Heiney: We work with all of those folks. NACOG has been a great partner of ours, as have the colleges and universities. Also the Prescott Downtown Partnership — we’ve had a great partnership with them. And we are the sponsoring foundation for the Center for the Future business incubator. We definitely have partnerships with Embry-Riddle, Yavapai College and its Small Business Development Center (SBDC), with NACOG. We have great partnerships with our city. We have great relations with our surrounding communities.
The partnerships are endless. I never get to do justice to talk about them because there’s so many of them.
Prescott LIVING: Do you see the focus of business changing permanently because of the pandemic? Instead of as many in-person meetings, mixing it up with online meetings and more networking collaboration done with distancing?
Sheri Heiney: People really want connectivity in person. As we bring these events back, we find people appreciate the online opportunity. They also are excited about the in-person coming back.
We do have people who say they still want to keep the online plus the in-person going.
The other area we’ve been working on and keeping an eye on, is broadband. Bringing strong broadband to the market is necessary so we are connected. That was another thing we learned really quickly when we rely on technology: How good is your broadband? I know the county supervisors are working along with NACOG on some solutions for the county. We’ve been in those conversations.
Prescott LIVING: Finally, where do you see the five- and 10-year life plans for Sheri and John Heiney?
Sheri Heiney: We’re home. We’re planning to be here forever. I love the chamber. This is my final job, I would say. And we love it here. We love being a part of this community. The people here are so wonderful and welcoming.
We’ve had two out of the four of our children move to Arizona, including our grandchildren, and we’re super excited about that.
We want to see things grow in a positive way — not overwhelmingly, but a way that will keep this area sustainable for the future. We’re going to keep an eye on the future and see what it looks like and how we can make a difference for this area in a positive way.
We definitely want to be here.