WILKES-BARRE – The banter was inevitable when the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry board met Friday morning to pick a new chairman. The name at the top of the list, Terrence Casey, was the same as the chairman of the Luzerne County Republicans. In his new role at the chamber, he’d be working closely with chief executive Todd Vonderheid, a former Democratic county commissioner.
It’s not as though it would be the first time; Casey, 51, once was a wrestling coach to Vonderheid, who turned 40 on Wednesday. Together they’ll grapple with challenges facing the economic development organization that is striving to change focus while dealing with a slumping economy.
“We’re experiencing the same trials and tribulations as our members,” Vonderheid said. “We’ve had to respond very much like (them),” by cutting nonessential staff and spending.
Even before the economy began its slide, the chamber found itself mired in debt tied to the redevelopment of the theater block on East Northampton Street. The mixed-use retail and condominium project’s cost ballooned past $30 million, and other than Wilkes-Barre Movies 14 and two modest restaurants, it has been unfilled. In December a majority stake in the development, renamed University Commons, was sold to California-based Carlsberg Management Co. Vonderheid said at the time that the chamber’s remaining $10 million debt on the project was a “gift investment in the city.”
Casey’s OK with that. “I don’t think the chamber’s role is to have a huge endowment or treasury,” he said. The chamber “has placed all of its assets in the downtown renovation,” a basic shift away from industrial park development that he supports.
“I think really the board has done a very thorough job in assessing where they are now and developing a strategic plan and rewriting the mission,” he said.
Finances are still bright on the radar. “A capital campaign is most immediate step,” Casey said. “We used to have them all the time” but for several years revenue from selling industrial property made them unnecessary.
Both Vonderheid and outgoing Chairman Tim Gilmour, president of Wilkes University, said Casey is the right man to oversee the campaign that is expected to kick off within weeks. “He’s very well connected,” Gilmour said. “I can’t think of a better person right now.”
The gregarious Casey, who bears a passing resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt, has a long connection to the chamber, starting when he was in intern there while completing his studies at Wilkes. After graduation he worked in membership development before starting a career in financial services.
He’s been both a volunteer and board member at various times over the last decade and led the committee that came up with 15 nominees for open board positions. Vonderheid said that group and new leaders for various chamber subsidiaries are impressive.
“As staff I’m delighted with the ‘Class of ‘09’,” as he termed it.
Casey is an administrative vice president in M&T Bank’s investment division. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Wendy, and two children.
Board chairmen serve two-year terms.