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Debbie Tinker bids farewell to the Dade County Chamber of Commerce this week. She has worked for the C of C since early 2005 and been director since 2007.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

To listen to Debbie Tinker talk, you’d think she was nobody much at the Dade County Chamber of Commerce. She’s the hired help, she explained in an interview last week at the Chamber offices in the old Trenton train depot; it’s the board of directors that calls the shots. “The director is just your face, to go out and implement what the board decides,” she said.

That may be so, but for as long as this reporter has been dishing up the local news, gossip and innuendo, that face has been Ms. Tinker’s. Since 2008, anyway, no Trenton mayor or Dade County chairman has adjourned a commission meeting without first hearing the Tinker Report; no Dade fundraiser has been Tink-free; and certainly the Sentinel has never left a C of C luncheon before checking out what shoes adorned the chic directorial feet.     

Now Ms. Tinker is retiring; her farewell reception is on Thursday, her last day Friday. 

It seems wrong somehow.

That’s how the Sentinel began the interview, with all the usual tact, and Ms. Tinker was inclined to agree. Her mood was wistful, tears not far away, and she admitted: “I’m having Chamber withdrawal already.” 

Still, she was willing to stroll briefly down Memory Lane, and the reader is invited to tag along.

Ms. Tinker’s C of C story begins with another retirement, when she left her job as a program assistant in the Dade 4-H program in late 2004. She hadn’t been there all that long – she’d come to Dade only in 1997 upon her marriage to county native Jim Tinker – but she’d racked up some years previously working for the state in another Teacher’s Retirement System job, at the welcome center in Fort Oglethorpe.

So the idea was to work part-time, and Ms. Tinker began as secretary in January 2005 under then executive director David Carroll, hardly suspecting she’d be kicked upstairs a couple of years later to become ED herself.    

At that point, she said, the idea of the Chamber having a director at all was still a new one, and she remembered the citizens – Alan Ward, Rex Harrison, Burrell Hill, Bill Marshall, among others – who’d worked with the city and county to make that a reality. “There are people like that will always be in my heart for the help they gave me,” she said.

It was in 2007 that the would-be part-timer found herself named director. The directorship is not really meant to be a full-time position, said Ms. Tinker, but there have been times she couldn’t find a moment to check her personal email for weeks. “It’s not a normal 8:30-5 day, and it’s not always 30 hours a week,” she said.

There are, in fact, nights and weekends – evening commission meetings, Saturday morning outdoor events, Saturday night banquets. “I don’t think people realize how much the Chamber does work for them,” she said.

Such as? asked the Sentinel, and Ms. Tinker elaborated:

The Chamber of Commerce’s basic mission, she said, is to make life better in Dade County. One way it tries to do that is by recruiting industry and small businesses, to provide jobs and expand the tax base, certainly, but also to furnish residents places to get the goods and services they need without leaving Dade. 

To that end, the Chamber gathers information on demographics, resources and available properties and provides same to prospective businesses. On the day in January 2012 that Food Lion announced it was pulling out of Trenton – a dark one for Dade, whose job base was still suffering from the Shaw closure a couple of years previously – Ms. Tinker went a-calling that same afternoon on another grocery retailer she hoped would fill the gap. She kept hustling until Food Outlet moved in the following October.  

Another important function of the C of C is to support existing businesses. That can mean helping with expansion or promotion, it can mean lending a hand with labor through job fairs, and it can even mean being careful not to step on existing toes when recruiting new business. (The Sentinel could not pry more on this last from Ms. Tinker with a shoehorn, other than a terse: “I walked a fine line.”)

The Chamber also works with the schools, the city, county and state governments and practically every volunteer organization in the area to improve the workforce, beautify the environment, attract tourists and provide a seasonal array of free events to entertain Dade residents throughout the year. 

For a little place like this, points out Ms. Tinker, Dade’s yearly Christmas parade is huge, and last year 1,500 kids attended the Trick or Treat Alley the Chamber cosponsors with the Dade Library each year. 

It is at these functions – civic event after fundraiser after outdoor festival –that Ms. Tinker has been most visible as the face of the Chamber – a face bravely adorned with a hostessly smile against all odds. Only this Saturday, for instance, as torrential rains rendered the Chamber’s annual Duck Race Social suitable for only, well, ducks, Ms. Tinker reported staunchly:

“We’re having a nice time anyway.”

But she admits there have been a few times the smile came close to slipping. The time the C of C hosted an exhibition of actors and cars featured on the old TV show Dukes of Hazzard, for example. She’d never done anything like it and lost her nerve at the last minute.

“I had done all this advertising and had not heard back from them in the last couple of weeks,” said Ms. Tinker. “So I was sitting there thinking, OK, are they even going to show up? What if they show up and nobody else shows up? That was one of my awful minutes.” 

That one had a happy ending, as cars, actors and audience all materialized and a good time was had by all. But anyone who’s staged an event in Dade knows about the other kind, where an organizer plans for months, rounds up entertainment, lays on food – and spends the day sitting all alone behind a table feeling like the Swamp Thing. 

Ms. Tinker did not care to comment on those events – even to the extent of admitting having had one – but she reminded the Sentinel it was the whole board of directors that planned events, not just herself. “That way you’re covered,” she said. “If it’s a good thing, they helped make the decision.  If it’s a bad thing, they can go down with you.”

In making her farewells, Ms. Tinker wished to thank that board, and especially the local businesses – notably Trenton Telephone, Bank of Dade and R-Haven – that always maintain a presence on it. “These people have been here since the start and really supported me,” she said. “That makes a working relationship that you’re more than just work partners, you’re friends.”

Ms. Tinker plans to spend her retirement traveling to visit her far-flung children and grandchildren, and she says she will also volunteer for her church and do all she can to help Dade’s Ann Brown build a long-needed animal shelter for the county.

But she knows part of her heart will always be at the Chamber, and she plans to remain involved as an ambassador.

 

 


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