'There's no better job'
Darlene Macklin retiring after 38 years with Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce
WORTHINGTON — Thirty-eight years ago, Darlene Macklin came to Worthington for a fresh start in a new community as she began a position as a bookkeeper with the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce.
On July 31, she’ll call it a career with the Chamber, with which she has served as executive director for the past 33 years. To note that much has happened over the decades would be a significant understatement.
A new town — and career
Macklin arrived in Worthington to begin her job with the Chamber in April 1982. She relocated from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she had been employed as an administrative assistant for a respiratory therapist.
Her personal situation at the time was challenging.
“I was married and went through a divorce, and my brother lived here in Worthington,” Macklin said. “He felt like I needed a change just to get away from where I was at.”
Macklin had a 4-month-old son, Brady, at the time, but she nevertheless followed her brother’s advice. She was hired by then-Chamber director Larry Haugen and came to work at an office that has relocated on two occasions since.
“I’ve been at three different offices with the Chamber,” she said. “The first was in the Thompson Hotel, right there in the alley near where Sew Unique was. After that, we moved down where Dennis Rick is now … and the next move was purchasing this location with WREDC (Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp.) in the early 1990s.
“We were fortunate with the Chamber portion of the building — our members bought it for us,” she continued. “We went on a fund drive and were able to raise enough money to purchase our half. It has been a good location for us.”
Macklin initially took up residence at Nobles Square Apartments upon moving to Worthington.
“It was hard to find housing then … as it is now … and I also had a difficult time finding child care for Brady,” she said. “It’s funny how things come back around.”
Moving on up
Macklin soon advanced from her bookkeeper job to the post of administrative assistant. She would eventually wind up serving as interim executive director on two occasions.
“It was once when Larry (Haugen) left and once when Ed Clark left,” she stated. “Then they (board) went through the hiring process after Ed Clark, but they were unsuccessful in finding someone. Then I applied for this position, and I was hired.
“When Ed Clark was here, he realized that I wanted to make the Chamber my career,” Macklin continued. “He allowed me to go to continuing education classes to get prepared for this position.”
Not much time was wasted in getting involved in her profession — and her community.
“I loved this job so much, I jumped right into everything I could possibly do,” she said. “It has been the best career ever.”
Three years after starting as executive director of the Chamber as well as the Convention and Visitors Bureau (which was formed in 1986), Macklin also saw her personal life begin to change when she met the man who later became her husband.
“I met Tom in 1990 — he was a blind date,” she recalled with laughter. “My sister from Blue Earth set us up. She found this guy in the Red Owl grocery store in Blue Earth and asked about him, and it ended up that my cousin knew him. We had a double date with my cousin and a gal he’d asked out, and it just took off from there.”
Tom was working at Telex Corp. in Blue Earth at the time, and continued to commute there for 13 more years after the couple was married in 1992 (he was hired at Bedford Industries in Worthington in 2005). In December 1992, the couple bought their Wilbur Street home in which they continue to live today.
Macklin is quick to point out the many ways the community of Worthington has changed over nearly four full decades.
“The drastic change is with the ethnic population that moved into our community,” she said. “I served on a committee when Bob Demuth was mayor, and that’s when we were starting to see the change coming and thinking about how we could make these new residents feel welcome and how we could assist them. The very first (new-immigrant-owned) business was Maria Parga — she was in the basement of the Thompson Hotel.
“I think if that change hadn’t happened, our community wouldn’t be the size it is now.”
Another major change came in the early 1990s, when a downtown street reconstruction project took place.
“That was one of the most challenging and most rewarding things,” she reflected. “I had weekly Friday morning meetings with the construction foreman. ... We came up with backdoor alley promotions throughout the whole process. We had a weekly update for members that included all kinds of construction updates. That took place over a whole summer and into the fall, as the King Turkey Day parade route had to be moved to 12th Street.”
Contracting with the State of Minnesota — through Explore Minnesota — for operating the Travel Information Center south of Worthington was also important to Macklin.
“They (state) had been looking at closing some of them,” Macklin said. “Andrea Mahlberg, Mick Myers and myself went up and testified that the CVB would hire the employees for the information center part of it if it was allowed to stay open.”
Sarah Nickel currently serves as the manager of the center, located on Minnesota 60 north of Bigelow, and Dennis and Sandy Reed are also on the staff. The facility normally opens in early May and closes at the end of October. With COVID-19, the center will finally open its doors today for the first time in 2020.
Seeing projects through
A mere mention of Minnesota 60 brings to mind the multi-year effort and ultimate completion of a four-lane Minnesota 60 highway, Macklin said she spoke with several state legislators over an extended period of time in order to help keep the project moving forward.
“Rod Hamilton (District 22B Rep., R-Mountain Lake) did an incredible job for us at the very end,” she credited. “He actually went against his party and voted for it to get it completed. I’ll never forget the work he did — he stuck his neck out for it because he wanted to do what was right for southwest Minnesota.”
Another big effort with which Macklin was involved was publicizing the importance of passing a half-cent local option sales tax that led to the construction of the Worthington Event Center and renovations at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, among other improvements. She also fondly recalls being part of the effort to renovate the Historic Dayton House, the idea for which she first heard from Red Windschill and ultimately was advanced by many others.
“It’s so rewarding to work on a project and see it come to fruition,” Macklin said. “It’s so rewarding to see all the volunteers come forward … the Chamber staff is behind the scenes. With strong volunteerism and the support of the local businesses, that’s what drives the Chamber of Commerce.”
Making things happen
Macklin is proud of her involvement with multiple organizations at the local, regional and state levels.
She was the first female member of Worthington’s Noon Kiwanis Club, later serving as its president and then secretary for 17 years while also holding the district post of lieutenant governor for one year. She also served on the Southern Minnesota Tourism Board of Directors, Mid-America Chamber of Commerce (Executives) and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Executives. She assisted with the Southwest Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Executives (serving as president on two occasions) and also was president of Travel Southwest.
Locally, she was a member of the Worthington YMCA board and was its president when Andy Johnson was hired as its executive director in 1999. Additionally, she is proud to have taken part in the founding of two community festivals.
“Bill Keitel and Jeff Hegwer came up with the idea for the Windsurfing Regatta … and we later met with Joni (Harms) and Dennis (Hall) from The Globe about getting the event started,” Macklin said. “I remember the five of us meeting upstairs at what was then Heartsong Christian Bookstore talking about it … The first festival took place in 2000.
“We also started Winterfest through the CVB,” she added. “That was in conjunction with the Southwest Fishing Club and their fishing tournament. Some people say there’s nothing to do in our community, but that’s not true — there’s something in a normal year going on every single month.”
Macklin also takes pride in the fact that, under her leadership and via collaboration with multiple agricultural organizations, agribusiness scholarships were founded for students who attend either two- or four-year college institutions in pursuit of ag degrees. More recently, the annual Farm to Table dinner serves as the primary fundraiser for the scholarships.
There are also unique attractions to visit in Worthington — among them being Spomer Classics — home to Marv Spomer’s collection of vintage automobiles, signs and other memorabilia.
“The amount of people that brings into our community is remarkable,” Macklin said. “I think we have a real jewel there that a lot of people don’t recognize.”
With husband Tom recently retired, Macklin said she’s looking forward to the next stage in her life and the opportunity to spend more time seeing their three grandchildren (ages 8, 5 and 1) at the family cabin, as well as seeing more of the grandkids’ school and church activities.
That doesn’t mean, however, that leaving the Chamber behind will be easy.
“I know it’s going to be emotional,” she said “There’s no better job than being the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. I love the job variety, and the work is different every single day. I love the motto of the Chamber, ‘Doing things that most people think just happen.’ I love the strong business support, and the support we have from so many volunteers.
“This isn’t exactly the way I wanted to end my career with the COVID … but it’s also been rewarding to help our local businesses with the different state and federal programs available. We were a resource center for them because of the relationships that we have.“
Macklin’s final message as she retires is one she has shared repeatedly — shop local.
“Our local businesses are only as strong as our support. We need to think of supporting them first before we travel outside of our area. That makes such a difference in our community.”