Madison resident Janet Connolly, co-owner with her husband Jerry of the Audubon Shop downtown on Boston Post Road since 1986, got involved with the Madison Chamber of Commerce much as you'd expect from an experienced birdwatcher: quietly observing from a distance.
That has changed rapidly as her talents and interests dovetailed with those of her fellow merchants, and now Janet has a new hat to wear as president-elect of Madison's Chamber of Commerce.
As current chair of the Chamber's retail committee, a 26-year member, and a co-owner of her own store, Janet is a natural selection to lead the Chamber.
"Chambers of commerce are usually mostly volunteer organizations," Janet says. "Whatever money we raise throughout the year goes to pay for the things we do."
The Madison Chamber has one full-time, paid employee in Executive Director Eileen Banisch.
Janet has been a Chamber member since she and Jerry opened their store. In June, current Chamber President Lisa Miksis will pass the gavel to Janet.
Janet describes her journey from Chamber member to Chamber president: "Six or seven years ago, one of the presidents nominated me to the board. I'm not a really loud, gregarious kind of person, so I spent a lot of time just listening to how the board functioned and who was doing what."
Within a year or so, board member Eileen Johnson, who passed away recently, and her husband Gunnar invited Janet to join the Chamber's new image committee, which the couple had created to keep the town of Madison attractive and inviting.
Janet explained, "With the way the Chamber had sort of morphed over the years, the image committee absorbed the retail committee, so I went to those meetings and Eileen and Gunnar were great. They really allowed me to learn the ropes. Eileen Banisch is also fantastic. She knows everybody in town. She knows what's going on, she gets stuff done. Everybody's very encouraging; it's that kind of environment. All you do is ask what needs to be done, and they'll encourage you to help."
Over the years, Janet has helped with countless Chamber events, including its sidewalk sales in January and July, previous Fashion Affairs, producing a new shopping/tourism brochure in partnership with The Source, Beachcomber night, the Scarecrows Invade Madison event, and the Masquerade Ball.
For now, Janet is focused on her retail committee duties, which include overseeing the Chamber's third annual Fashion Affair, taking place Thursday, March 21 at the Mercy Center by the Sea on Neck Road in Madison. Proceeds benefit the Chamber's scholarship fund, which in turn benefits graduating high school seniors from Madison who plan to study business in college.
"About five years ago the board said, 'We want to create good news about Madison,' so each of us on the board came back with three things we love about Madison. That got the ball rolling to create this merchant committee, because we also had these cool, new, young merchants in town who wanted to do more, and some of them had the idea to put on a fashion show." Janet says. "So a couple years ago, with the help of Eileen Banisch, we decided it would be a good fundraiser for our scholarship. I think the more you get together and share ideas, the better it is for everybody."
Models for the fashion show are selected by the shops, and can include a mix of their customers, local teachers and students, or other community members. The presenting sponsors of the event this year are Mercy Center and the Madison Wine Shop. Sponsors and featured fashion businesses also include Attitude Plus, bella Perlina, Ciao Bella, Country Shop of Madison, Everthine Bridal, Jolie Boutique, Khaki and Black, New England Soul Journeys, Opticare, Sonas Med Spa, and Spot Lite Cleaners.
Tickets are $25 per person and are limited. They may be purchased online through the Chamber's website madisonct.com or by mailing a check made out to the Madison Chamber (P.O. Box 706, Madison, CT 06443). Tickets can also be purchased at Jolie Boutique, Ciao Bella, bellaPerlina, Spotlite Cleaners or Attitude Plus.
Meanwhile, Jerry is manning the couple's own store much of the time. The Audubon Shop is a niche business mainly focused on bird watching. They sell bird feeders, binoculars and telescopes, and bird watching guides, among many other items.
Janet says, "I got into [birding] through my father, who helped us. Bit by bit we added an eco-tourism component where we take people on trips to the tropics."
She adds, "We have managed to cultivate a lot of business from New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and all over Connecticut, because you can't go into just any store and find the kind of advice we give. In December, the Boston Globe called wanting to know about our eagle watches. They were doing a piece about things to do within a couple hours of home, and they mentioned us, and we got a ton of people from Boston coming down, staying overnight in town. It's great for everybody because they get exposed to what we have here."
It's hard for Janet to draw a clear line between her work and recreational activities.
"We just got back from Florida, where we did a slideshow for Sanibel Island Audubon Society on our Namibia-Botswana trip, which we took the last three years in a row."
Her husband is planning to take a group of bird-watchers to Africa this year in August or September. Janet will stay behind to watch over the store.
"The trips are fantastic," she comments. "Anywhere within the tropical region, there's a lot more birds than we have here. We hire a company that specializes in setting up these trips. It's a way for us to get there for business and its a way for us to not be insulated. We don't go to a resort and stay inside the gates. In Namibia we drive 1,500 miles in about 18 days."
On her own upcoming adventure as Chamber president, Janet reflects, "I want the Chamber to appeal to many different types of businesses. I want people to come to me and tell me what they need so that I can try to steer them to the right people, or help plan events, or whatever. I love the Chamber. I really want to devote more time to getting people together. I want people to know that I'm approachable and I would love to exchange ideas."
Janet can be reached at 203-245-9056. Learn more about the Audubon Shop and their events at www.theaudubonshop.com. Visit the Madison Chamber of Commerce website at madisonct.com for more information about the Chamber and the upcoming Fashion Affair.
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