By Eric Gorton, Contributor
Soon after graduating from Virginia Tech in 1979, Frank Tamberrino left Virginia for Florida, leaving mid-Atlantic winters in the rearview mirror.
“I’ve never been fond of the cold,” said Tamberrino, who grew up in the Richmond area and graduated from Huguenot High School.
He spent the next 20 years working in several chamber of commerce and economic development positions along Florida’s Gulf Coast before a decade-long stint in Columbia, Tenn., about 50 miles south of Nashville. And then, in 2009, it was back to bitter north country to run the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce.
Tamberrino vividly recalls starting the job on Monday, Dec. 14 that year because on Friday, Dec. 18, the city was blanketed with more than 20 inches of snow. A few weeks later, another storm dumped another 20-plus inches on the city.
“We didn’t even see the backyard until March,” he said with a laugh.
Tamberinno, 65, survived that winter and has served ever since as a leader in the region’s business community – a rewarding career that will culminate with his retirement on Dec. 31.
Business leaders who have worked with Tamberinno during his time in Harrisonburg say he will be missed, including Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
“During his 11 years as President and CEO of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, Frank has served as an integral ally of the Virginia Chamber in our efforts to support the Commonwealth’s economic climate and achieve our goal of being recognized, once again, as the best state for business,” DuVal said in an email.
Frank Oncken, chairman of the board of directors for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber, said Tamberrino’s contributions have been “invaluable.”
“I have been impressed with his drive and dedication to the Chamber and the region,” Oncken said. “His work has been especially impactful over the last eight months, as many area businesses have looked for and found help to mitigate the impact of the global pandemic related to COVID-19.”
Brian Shull, Harrisonburg’s economic development director, has also worked closely with Tamberrino through the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, a regional economic development and marketing organization, and, since March, on the Business Resiliency Task Force, which has offered assistance to area businesses fighting to survive during the pandemic.
“He understands how important a strong business climate is to enabling expansions and attracting new businesses,” Shull said.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in urban and regional planning at Virginia Tech, Tamberrino began his career in the planning department in Clearwater, Florida. He then moved into an economic development position for Citrus County, Florida for several years before taking a job in Pensacola that involved both chamber of commerce and economic development duties.
“I was always sort of a troubleshooter,” Tamberrino said. “I never took an organization over that was working on all cylinders. Why, I don’t know.”
In Pensacola, he said, he was told to put the city on the map. At the time, he explained, it was difficult to attract business much farther west than Tallahassee in the northern part of the state.
He spent his last three years in Florida working in Sarasota before a headhunter told him about a promising job in Tennessee.
In Columbia, Tenn., Tamberrino was asked to direct an organization that was formed by consolidating three chambers of commerce and an economic development council. His charge, he said, was to “put the pieces back together” and bring some credibility to an organization that people in Nashville didn’t know existed. “We were pretty well known by the time I left there,” he said.
Tamberrino said his mixture of experience in chamber work and economic development before arriving in Harrisonburg gave him a broad picture of how communities develop. While the local chamber was in better shape when he arrived than some of the others he’d worked for, it lacked a reputation around the state.
“People in Richmond or across the state understood there was a chamber in Harrisonburg, but we really didn’t have a presence.”
When he arrived, Tamberinno’s top priority was to forge stronger relationships with business leaders locally and statewide. That paid off years later, he said, when he started calling on colleagues elsewhere in Virginia to build support for recent legislation to improve Interstate 81.
He asked these connections to explain to their legislators how I-81 was not only important to the economy of western Virginia.
“It moves a lot of goods and it also moves a lot of people,” he said. “So we touched base with our allies across the state and said, ‘This is very important, not only to us, but here is what it means to you. I think we hit some pretty good nerves.”
He can’t say for sure how much his efforts helped, but the measure’s narrow passage felt like a win.
“We’ve got some things that we’ve built up,” Tamberrino said. “The Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Richmond, if something’s going on and they need some help up in this area, or they want to bounce things off regions of the state, nine out of 10 times, I’m going to get an email or a phone call from somebody saying, ‘What do you guys think up there? Or, can you help us out on this?’”
He’s been a go-to person locally too.
“It’s hard not to know Frank,” said Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. “He’s the guy who’s always present. He’s at all the ribbon cuttings, he’s at all the networking events, he’s just very involved.”
His successor will have to put their own twist on the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber, but they won’t have to fix anything.
“From an organizational standpoint, from a structural standpoint, from a credibility standpoint, we’ve got a good organization,” he said. “I feel pretty good about someone coming in.”
Due to pandemic-induced uncertainty, Tamberrino said the chamber’s next leader will need to assess programs and decide which of its programs to keep, alter, or, maybe, cut.
“They’re going to have to look at line items and budgets in a different way than we’ve had to for the past 11 years,” he said.
Tamberinno said he’s been mulling retirement for several years and that he has no concrete plans for January and beyond. If the chamber calls, though, he says he’ll gladly pick up.
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