By Trista Thurston

Spend a day with Leanna Spada, executive director of the Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, and it’s simple to see why she was awarded 2021’s Best of the Best Person of the Year.

The Observer-Reporter’s Best of the Best awards highlight the top businesses, organizations and people in Washington and Greene counties, the South Hills and the Mon Valley. This celebration of our vibrant community just hit its fifth anniversary this year.

Spada, a Charleroi native, has been with the chamber since 2018.

Continuously operating for 100 years, a milestone that was celebrated with a member riverboat gala earlier this year, the Greater Charleroi Chamber of Commerce was restructured and regionalized into the Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2001, covering all areas of the mid-Mon Valley. MVRCC is comprised of members from Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette and Washington counties and ranked among the top 25 largest chambers in the Pittsburgh area. MVRCC was awarded 2021’s Best Chamber of Commerce at the Best of the Best.

The average person might wonder, what does a chamber of commerce president do with their day? Most people’s immediate assumption is just ribbon cuttings.

But what’s going on behind the scenes?

Especially after the pandemic, we know how essential chambers of commerce are to their local communities. Like many chambers, Spada and her team were a repository for information and resources for chamber members: hosting webinars, distributing new mandates during the green, yellow and red phases of reopening and more.

I shadowed Spada for a day to get a sense of her work.

Morning meetings

I arrive at the MVRCC office just after 9 a.m. Nov. 9, with coffee and a notebook in hand. The office, located right along the railroad tracks and the Monongahela River in Charleroi, is packed. Goodie bags and raffle baskets for the chamber’s upcoming event on Saturday, the Magical Mystery Bus tour, line the tables and floor; MVRCC inherited the event from the Greater Rostraver Chamber of Commerce after acquiring the adjacent chamber last year.

The all-day Magical Mystery Bus tour takes attendees to see businesses in the Mon Valley, but the catch is no one knows where they’ll be going until they arrive. The MVRCC employs a team of two: Spada and part-time secretary Melissa Trombley.

“Melissa keeps me on track,” Spada mentions with a smile as Trombley reminds her to leave for her meeting.

Meanwhile, Trombley works on organizing the items and finalizing details for the event. I can tell the two work well together from their interactions during my time in the office. Spada and I head back to her office to catch up on her email inbox before running off to a meeting at 10 a.m.

The previous day, Spada had reached out to her members for a holiday shopping initiative, Merry Merchant. She’s hoping to collect 20 businesses for a card. Shoppers that spend $10 with at least 10 of the participating members will be entered into a raffle with a prize totaling $500. It kicks off just in time for the holiday season. By the time I leave late Tuesday afternoon, she will have received enthusiastic confirmations from 13 interested members. Spada is excited about the quick response.

After checking in on that effort, we’re off.

Meet Leanna

Spada mentions our morning appointment is something she wishes she had time to do way more often: dive deep into local community meetings. She’s been asked to assist with the Charleroi light-up night in a couple of weeks.

During the small planning meeting, Spada often jumps in with helpful additions. She’s affable with a friendly smile.

Meeting Spada, you can tell she’s professional and poised. She’s commanding in a charming way. She’s connected and knowledgeable, offering to call her members and ask for help or request their participation in one of her efforts.

“Let me ask,” and “let me talk to them,” are her main refrains during the meeting. She leaves with a list of people to call, tacked onto an ever-growing list of things to do.

We arrive back at the office at 11 a.m. to meet with Trombley to discuss their upcoming events. During that time, a board member comes to drop off a raffle basket for the bus tour and finish stuffing the goodie bags for attendees.

Spada mentions before entering the insurance industry for about a dozen years, she was a small business owner herself, which she finds incredibly helpful in representing her members. She had the mindset of a business owner during the pandemic and expected a slump. She prepared the MVRCC board for a significant loss of membership at the start of the year.

But instead, something unexpected and wonderful happened.

The chamber retained almost 90% of its members, the highest retention year of her tenure so far. That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of her job, receiving tangible evidence she and the chamber have been of value to its membership, especially during a global catastrophe.

With numerous goals still set out in front of her for the day, Spada says she wishes she had more hands or even a clone. Turning her mind off work can be difficult; she’s been with MVRCC for three years, and it’s taken that long to discover a good balance between the chamber and her personal life.

Spada attended Charleroi High School and California University of Pennsylvania, so she’s had strong Mon Valley ties since her youth. I also have the pleasure of meeting Spada’s mother, Adele Hopkins. Spada tells me her mother is incredibly active within the community; she serves on the Charleroi school board and is involved in the Greater Charleroi Community Development Corporation. It’s clear where Spada gets her strong work ethic and love of the Mon Valley. Spada is also a mother of two and a resident of Charleroi.

Catching up on calls

Spada has collected a list of people to call or return messages to throughout the day, and now’s the time to reach out. She calls to confirm coffee for Saturday’s bus tour. She hears from a property owner with a question about facade grants, another of the chamber’s many offerings to revitalize the area.

Spada is additionally working on a signage effort, which she checks into during the afternoon. Oh, and she’s hosting a meeting Thursday, which needs a few items finalized before the day is over.

Before Trombley is out for the day, she and Spada chat briefly about the MVRCC’s upcoming holiday member event, confirming details and wording for an invitation.

As the day winds down, it seems Spada finally gets a quiet moment to herself -well, except for me – for the first time since I walked into the office.

Spada truly loves her work.

She heard of the job and thought it sounded like an incredible opportunity, but not something she was necessarily qualified to do.

Her sister, though, encouraged her to go for it.

Debra Keefer, the former executive director that held the role for more than two decades before retiring, hired Spada at the chamber in an administrative capacity for a few months. After evaluating her performance, she found her to be a suitable replacement. Spada has been filling those big shoes ever since.

Spada still has big plans: a list of ideas of things she’d like to do graces her wall. Mostly, she wants collaboration, and that’s evident in her work.

“Better together” seems to be her modus operandi. She believes things work better when pulling in all the relevant parties. She asks lots of questions when she doesn’t know the answer or needs the expertise of another.

Headed home

We wrap up for the day, and Spada closes the office and wishes me well on my drive back to Washington. I think back on my day during that time, recalling all the people I had the pleasure to meet. The one thing that stood out to me: Spada introduced me to everyone. Even though I asked simply to observe her for the day, she pulled me into the conversation. She didn’t let me stay on the side, and made me feel like an equal by her side.

I don’t think my experience with her was unique.

Spada is all about bringing more people to the table for the betterment of the Mon Valley.

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