Harrison resigns from Chamber

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 5, 2005

Seven years ago, when Diane Harrison first started working for the Perry County Chamber of Commerce, all she had was an empty office, a phone, and a willingness to work. She’s leaving at the close of February with the title of Executive Director and a better Perry County behind her.

“It’s time,” she said. “My hope is for the Chamber to find someone to continue the progress that’s been made…this office is so important to Marion.”

That office, located at the renovated Marion Depot building, is a far cry from the Chamber’s humbler beginnings. It boasts a broad work desk with a bank of computer monitors, a wealth of promotional materials for Marion and Perry County (nearly all of which have been produced in-house), and a community display area currently featuring math projects done by Francis Marion High students.

All of these improvements have come, not coincidentally, during Harrison’s tenure.

“The Chamber was founded in 1994. Back then it was in a little bitty office uptown,” Harrison said. Not long after the Chamber’s move into the Depot, Harrison stumbled in the Director’s chair.

“My husband [Marion City Councilman Corin Harrison] was President of the Chamber at the time. I was working at home, so he asked if I could go and just keep the office open, answer the phone, that sort of thing,” Harrison recalls. “Seven years later, here I am. I’ve just been doing my good civic duty.”

It’s been a duty that’s required some flexibility, especially at the beginning.

“It was quite an adjustment,” said Harrison. “I had to just walk into an empty office. I really had to teach myself how to handle things. The Chamber was still young then, too, so it was still figuring out what a Chamber does.”

One thing it does, at least with Harrison at the helm, is to provide visitors with the sort of information that might change them from “visitor” to “resident.”

“Those are the things I’m most proud of,” she says. “We did a Historic Marion booklet, which was last done 30 years ago. The Marion Visitors’ Guide has made a wonderful addition. We’ve put together a Perry County brochure and worked with the newspaper to publish a Perry County magazine, at no cost to us.”

“We’re the first contact people have with Marion,” Harrison says, explaining why the Chamber’s materials are so important. “We’re sort of an overall office for everything, the info center for anything people are interested in.”

Harrison has also helped spearhead the Chamber’s efforts to bring business to the county. She cites several new businesses that have opened in the area, including Marion’s new Movie Gallery, and is excited about plans for Marion’s historic downtown square.

“The effort has just started to revitalize downtown,” she says. “Three new businesses have opened downtown, and a Marion group just got a grant to work on developing the area.”

What Harrison says she’ll remember most, though, about her tenure are “the little things.”

“I designed some walking tours of Marion,” she recalls, “and one day I got to take 80 Girl Scouts on a three-mile walking tour. We had a police car escorting us, and by the time we were finished some of the girls were riding along in the police car. I was proud I could still outlast some of the Girl Scouts,” she says with a laugh.

Harrison also remembers fondly “picking spots for him to hide” when Birmingham TV anchor Mike Royer visited Marion for his “Where in Alabama is Mike Royer?” spots. Perhaps her favorite memory, though, is a troop of student architects sent from Auburn University to study Marion and design a “25-year plan” for the city.

“Most of them were city kids,” she said. “You could see at first they were like ‘Take us back!’ But we had a fish fry for them, we took them canoeing on the Cahaba…they stayed for two weeks, and when they had to leave some were actually crying! It felt very rewarding.”

It’s visitors like those students that have given Harrison her greatest sense of satisfaction.

“It’s a very fun job. I’ve been able to meet so many people and visitors, and I’ve learned from them, too. I’ve lived here all my life, but it wasn’t until I worked here that I realized how much history we have. Visitors say ‘You don’t realize what you’ve got.’ That feels good.”

She admits that it will feel good too, though, to pass the torch to someone else. She has “several trips planned,” including one to Europe, and she’s looking forward to getting back to hobbies like needlework and gardening. “I love my yard,” she says with a laugh.

But she loves Marion and Perry County too much to vanish out of sight completely.

“Corin’s still on the City Council,” she says, “and I’ve got to stay involved with the tourism effort. There’s several committees, and we’re working hard to promote tourism…I promise you I’ll stay busy. I’m not one to stay at home in front of the TV!”