Drive along the Highway 86 corridor in northern El Centro, and you’ll see the growth of the auto dealership industry with both Rogers & Rogers and El Centro Motors expanding. Both have launched new construction projects as their vehicle lines expand.
Darletta D. Willis, chief executive officer of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce, takes pride in such growth.
“It is a great indication of our economy improving,” she said. “Residents have jobs, and are able to spend their money.”
When any of her chamber members succeed, it means a great deal to her.
“It’s just really good watching people you know and have worked with succeed,” she said. “It’s like watching your kids succeed. Even though it may not directly be your success, it means so much. And it feels good to know that the chamber and myself personally have had something to do with their success, whether it be an expansion, hiring new employees or increased revenue. No matter what it is or how small it is, it just makes us happy.”
Willis has been the El Centro Chamber’s chief executive officer for five years, and she admits the job has been tougher than she expected. Operating on a shoestring budget dependent solely on membership dues and program revenue can make it challenging to provide the kind of services a chamber must. But she and her staff strive daily to be there for the members and for new businesses that have recently located to El Centro or are looking to locate there.
As in any job, there are good days and rough days. The rough ones come when dealing with finances, working to ensure there is enough money to maintain the chamber’s programs and to put on key events throughout the year.
“Asking for money is never easy,” she said, “but our membership always pulls through. We are always able to hit our goals because they believe in us.”
For Willis and her staff, one of the most critical ways a chamber succeeds in meeting the needs of local businesses is through building relationships, and that is what they have tried to do.
“Chamber life is all about the relationships you build,” she said. “A member is able to see more value when you have relationships. If it is not me, then it is my staff out there trying to build relationships and that is key to the success of any chamber.”
It was 2012 when Willis, a mother to six children, most now adults, accepted the lead position with the chamber. Having come from the private sector, she expected a bit of learning curve, but she said five years later, she continues to learn on the job.
Willis believes that right now she is where she is meant to be.
Born and raised in Chicago, she devoted herself to a college education, even as she and her husband, Marc Willis, who is a Chief in the Navy and stationed at Naval Air Facility (NAF) El Centro, began a family.
She earned her first bachelor’s degree in business management from Howard University in Washington, D.C. She went on to earn two masters’ degrees, one in human resources from Howard University, and one in business administration from Loyola University in Chicago. She also earned a second bachelor’s degree in program management from Loyola.
When her husband was stationed in San Diego, the family made a move to Phoenix, a city they’d visited while on a vacation. Willis said she chose Phoenix over San Diego because she preferred the warmer weather. Then, when her husband was stationed at NAF El Centro in 2011, the family made the move to the Imperial Valley, and Willis said from the start it was a good fit. The weather and the small town feel both were comforting to her.
While in Phoenix, she worked for a human resources company and for the first year in El Centro, she continued her work with that firm, but when the position opened at the El Centro Chamber, she applied, starting what she said has been a fulfilling experience.
And while the learning curve was a bit steeper than she first anticipated, Willis is the kind of person who likes to learn.
“If I don’t know it, I have to figure it out,” she said. “I have to know.”
When she started her position, she inherited a chamber that years earlier had made the decision to no longer utilize funding from the City of El Centro, a move that gave the chamber greater autonomy but cut funding by $100,000.
Nevertheless, she said that independence is crucial, in particular in the chamber’s ability to serve its membership on critical issues.
The chamber, for example, organized workshops during which the city was asked to prove the need for two tax referendums—Measure P and Measure Q, the first a sales tax and the other a transient occupancy tax. While the chamber ultimately took no stance on either measure, Willis said, “We did hold them accountable.”
In the end, voters approved the sales tax and voted down the transit occupancy tax, but regardless of the vote, Willis said it was important for the chamber to be there for the businesses that had a concern regarding the ballot items.
She added the break from city funding has actually improved relations with the city, and it is the strength of that relationship—coupled with a strong relationship with Imperial County, that aid the chamber in its work.
That work includes providing seminars for businesses, online training programs, group healthcare for businesses, monthly chamber mixers, the chamber’s annual Air Show Gala in support of the NAF El Centro Air Show, the annual Christmas parade, snowbird breakfast, fashion show and wine tasting event, among other chamber-sponsored activities. The work includes being there to address questions from the membership and the tools to help those businesses succeed.
Willis, who has three daughters in college (a fourth daughter is ten years old and attends the Imagine school in El Centro, and she has two sons—one in the military stationed in Hawaii and one who works in and lives in Phoenix), said she takes her job very personally. When a business closes, she feels a sense of responsibility just as she shares in the pride of seeing businesses grow.
“When I refer to the businesses that I have relationships with, it’s ours, not theirs because I have a sense of ownership in them,” said Willis, who also has one 3-year-old granddaughter.
She added her commitment to the city remains as strong as ever, and she and her staff will continue to play a role in the ongoing growth that has marked the city in recent years.
“It’s a great community, and we love the people,” she said. “I am definitely committed to the people, the community and the businesses.”