Long-time Minot chamber leader retires
When L. John MacMartin interviewed for president of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce nearly 32 years ago, he told the selection committee he planned to stay a year or two and certainly not make a career of the job.
He’s had to live down the teasing of the selection committee since, but he responds he never found a better place to go.
MacMartin, who retired May 27, explained, “The small business people are the backbone of most communities, and I wanted to be as close to the small businesses as I could. I didn’t need the bigger city, the bigger organization, because the work that we were doing was important to Minot and for this part of North Dakota.”
Still focusing on small business in retirement, MacMartin expects to spend more time assisting his wife, Kim Thompson, with their quilt shop, including doing some quilting himself using the long-arm machine.
A farewell dinner for MacMartin is planned for next Thursday. A social begins at 5 p.m., followed by the dinner at 6 p.m., in the Grand Hotel. An RSVP to the Minot Area Chamber EDC is required.
MacMartin joined the Minot chamber on Aug. 15, 1990. He previously had been vice president of the chamber in Billings, Montana. A Bismarck native, he graduated from the University of North Dakota and worked for a time for a Montana congressman in Washington.
“That was really to try to understand politics a little more, and it made me realize that I greatly appreciate what those folks do. But I didn’t want to be an elected official. I wanted to be behind the scenes, providing information, helping make the community a better place,” MacMartin said.
He spent a couple of years in Campgrounds of America’s corporate office in Billings. It was a great place to work, but his heart was in the public arena, which led to the job with the Billings chamber.
His transition to the Minot chamber brought him back to North Dakota after 18 years away. He said he was impressed with Minot’s retail base and trading area as well as its economic security.
“I knew the base was here. That seemed to be a good linchpin,” he said.
However, he had just started the job when word came that fall that a Base Realignment and Closure Commission round was to start in 1991. MacMartin said the chamber quickly went into defensive mode, sending a delegation to Washington to try to figure out what to do.
“The fact that we engaged early, I think, made all the difference,” he said. Minot Air Force Base stayed off the 1991 closure list, and the city hunkered down for the next round. MacMartin said preserving the air base was a focus from 1991 to 1995 and again from 2003 to 2005. It was during that first scare in 1991 that Minot’s existing base retention task force formed.
Even while eyes were on the air base, MacMartin looked for ways administratively to make the chamber better. It was during that time that the chamber updated its membership list and did a membership drive. It also engaged in strategic planning.
State Sen. Randy Burckhard, a former chamber board chairman, said MacMartin was exactly what the chamber needed when he came.
“He’s the consummate executive. He always had me totally prepared for any meeting I was going to head up,” Burckhard said. “He’s very smart about the goings-on in Minot, especially the Air Force base — a great resource for me.”
Minot and its Task Force 21 are the most recognized community group in the Air Force Global Strike Command, and it is because of local leaders that include MacMartin, he said. The base has remained off any closure list “partly because of John MacMartin’s organization and his intelligence and his love for Minot,” he said. “We should be so happy that we had him stay all these years.”
Along with scrambling to preserve the base, shortly after MacMartin’s arrival the chamber faced another major controversy centered on a proposed landfill near Sawyer that was to take municipal garbage ash from a Minneapolis incinerator. The chamber supported the landfill, which resulted in a loss of a couple of members and a gain of six. Ultimately, the landfill was used for other purposes.
In looking back, MacMartin considers the chamber’s support for local sales tax votes to be among the most significant actions during his tenure with the organization. Support for the city and county sales taxes wasn’t universal within the membership, but voters did approve the taxes.
“One of the things I would say is, if it’s good for the chamber, it’s good for the community. If it’s good for the community, it’s good for the chamber, because the chamber is made up of businesses. Those businesses employ people, and by extension, their families make up the community,” MacMartin said. “As long as we were there supporting community issues, that made sense to us.”
A restaurant smoking ban was another issue the chamber considered but stepped away from at the request of the local hospitality industry, which preferred to address the issue itself, MacMartin said.
MacMartin also remembers the planning that went into Vision 2000. The chamber funded and staffed Vision 2000 and petitioned the city and county to get involved. However, beyond that point, the chamber did not drive the process but let the community lead, he said.
“When it was all said and done, there was contact with over 3,000 distinct individuals,” he said. “There were over 120 items that were identified that the community should look into. It didn’t necessarily mean do it, but look into it and see if it was feasible.”
Not all those items came to fruition once studied, but a number of them did, including the city entrance signs that still stand.
“There were great benefits that came out of that in terms of communication in the community,” MacMartin said. “It was something that we all felt very, very good about.”
MacMartin also once chaired a childcare task force to look into the issue of daycare needs. Although he wasn’t one to project himself into an issue, he had asked for an appointment because he felt business needed a seat at the table.
MacMartin occasionally brought items of chamber interest to the city council as well.
“There have been important conversations that have occurred over the years. I’d like to think that I’ve built rapport with council members so that the council is at least comfortable and I’m able to present not an argument, but present an issue, and most of the time have success in getting my concerns addressed,” he said.
The most recent big change was the merger of Minot’s economic development arm, Minot Area Development Corp., with the chamber to form Minot Area Chamber EDC on Jan. 1, 2021.
“What we promised the members from both organizations was that the do-more-with-less doesn’t mean we’re going to do more with less money. We’re probably going to have a little less staff, and we’re going to be able to do more. But we’re going to need the funds that exist today. We’ve been very successful in making that conversion and retaining the members that we’ve had before in both organizations, and in some cases, some of them decided to increase their dues. So the organization, at least membership-wise, is very stable,” MacMartin said.
Merging the two organizations brought MacMartin into the work that MADC was doing with an intermodal facility and logistics park on Minot’s east side. He said the intermodal facility is poised for expansion with the planned construction of new track.
MacMartin’s successor, Brekka Kramer, is carrying on that work as the new MACEDC president.
One of the goals of the chamber has been to support economic development, diversify the economy and decrease dependence on Minot Air Force Base, MacMartin said. The economy has expanded but dependence on the base has increased, too, he said, noting the growing impact that base dependents and even some personnel have had through participation in the local civilian workforce.
As a representative of an air base community, MacMartin has had unique opportunities extended to him. He has gone up in a B-52, visited missile sites, traveled to other U.S. bases and, during the Gulf War, he was part of a delegation that traveled to England, Germany and Italy to visit bases and see the behind-the-scenes activities in support of the war.
Downtown business owner Betty Fedorchak called MacMartin a huge supporter of the air base who, from the start, recognized its importance and facilitated changes that improved the city’s relationship with the base.
“The communication between Minot Air Force Base and downtown Minot became so much greater after John took over,” she said. “We have a great Military Affairs Committee.” He also led the chamber’s efforts to start the Honorary Military Commander’s program, and that has been a huge success, she said.
Having served on the chamber board for nine years, Fedorchak said MacMartin showed appreciation for his staff and board as well as giving back to his community.
“I just found him a delight to work with, and I learned a lot from him,” she said.
MacMartin viewed his role as building relationships and looking out for business interests. He said he left decision-making to those he considered the organization’s owners – the chamber members. He sought to follow the course they set through the years.
“It wasn’t my chamber,” he said. “It was their chamber and, hopefully, I’ve done the right things over the years.”