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Konyha happy to be back leading Regional Chamber

February 16th, 2018

By Linda Lipp | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Bill Konyha, the president of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, has been feeling a lot better literally since he took on the leadership of that organization in October.

Twenty-nine months as the director of Indiana’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs, commuting weekly to Indianapolis from his home in Wabash, eating too much fast food and banquet food and having no where to work out took a toll on his health.

So the former CEO of the Economic Development Group of Wabash County was quick to throw his hat in the ring early in 2017 when he learned the top spot at the Regional Chamber had opened up after the hasty departure of Vince Buchanan.

He called John Sampson, the president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, which was supporting the operations of the Regional Chamber until a new leader could be found.

“If there’s one thing that would make me leave the state and come back, it’s that job,” he told him.

Sampson thanked Konyha for his interest and said the organization intended to go through with a formal selection process, “and I respect that,” Konyha said.

In the meantime, he intended to continue to work at OCRA; but about a month later, he’d decided he’d had enough and submitted his resignation. “It was time for me to leave,” he said.

“As I thought about it, I had taken one week’s vacation this century – in 2005,” he continued. After that week on a houseboat in Tennessee with family, he rushed back to Indiana, got on a plane and flew to Japan on a trade mission with then-Gov. Mitch Daniels. And that was that.

So after leaving OCRA, Konyha gave himself the summer off. He got back on a healthy diet and workout schedule, and by November had lost 32 of the 52 pounds he’d gained working at the state and improved other key health measures as well. “Now, my goal is to just hang in there and do the best for our region and the community I live in for the next five years or so, and then decide what I want to do. If I’m going good, I’d just as soon never retire but to drop dead doing something I love.”

The Regional Chamber has served as the advocacy arm — read, Indiana General Assembly lobbyist — for local chambers in the region since it was formed. Konyha’s first experience with the Regional Chamber came several years ago through his role at the Wabash EDG when he testified four times before the Indiana Legislature in support of a right-to-work proposal. It was an odd position to be in, given that his father had been the international president of the Carpenters Union and his whole family came from the labor movement.

“I said then and I say now that I have no objections to unions, but the site selectors I talked to told me repeatedly that as many as 70 percent of their clients wouldn’t even consider Indiana because we were not a right-to-work state,” he said.

The legislation passed.

Konyha’s second contact with the Regional Chamber was pushing the Lafayette Road expansion as chair of the council of local economic development organizations (LEDOs). Wabash named the road as its No. 1 project, and all the other LEDOs did the same. “We got $30 million and the road’s open,” he boasted.

“I now look at this as an opportunity for a legacy,” Konya continued. “The issue is not being a lobbyist so much as what tools can we provide for our members? … How can we assist them to do what they do? There’s nobody better positioned than us to do that. I see this as an opportunity to advance the economy, grow the region and to help some of our communities become more sustainable.”

If that sounds like a broader description than traditional lobbying, it is.

“The work that we do in the legislature is critical, and some of that work is done before the legislature goes into session. Some of it is developing policy; some of it is maintaining and expanding relationships with legislators, but there’s so much more we can do. There is absolutely no reason we can’t help our communities, our members, advocate for policy locally. There’s no reason that if they have an issue they need help with that we can’t become the subject-matter experts,” he continued.

“I’m talking about putting ourselves in a position where we add value 12 months a year rather than three months a year.” Konyha said.