Chamber director announces retirement after 25 years
Roughly three-quarters of a million people have walked through the doors of the visitor center in Black Mountain over the past 25 years.
A giant red rocking chair welcomes them to “the little town that rocks” where they are greeted by staff and volunteers at the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce, an institution in the community for nearly a century.
Since 1993, when he was named executive director, Bob McMurray has been the face of the chamber. That will change at the end of June when he retires from the position.
The Swannanoa Valley was very different when McMurray succeeded Lamont Davis in the role. Cherry Street, a collection of mostly vacant buildings in the late 1970s through the 1980s, was slowly morphing into the charming array of shops it is today.
In 1994, five new businesses opened their doors before the summer and Bill Rickets announced plans for the development of Cherry Street Square.
McMurray, who sat on the chamber’s board during the the “town lift project” that reversed the direction of the downtown business district, was optimistic about the future of commerce in the area when he applied for director position.
“I knew (former director) Andy Andrews and I saw in the paper that they were advertising for a new executive director at the chamber,” he said. “It was part-time but I applied for it anyway because I thought it would be a job I would really enjoy.”
McMurray was no stranger to the local community or the businesses that occupied it. He lived in Swannanoa as a child before his family moved to Black Mountain where McMurray Chevrolet operated for 55 years.
His grandfather opened the business with a $400 loan in 1935 as the country was recovering from the Great Depression.
Growing up around the dealership, which occupied the building currently shared by Trailhead Restaurant and Bar and My Father’s Pizza, McMurray got to know “everyone in town,” he said. He earned his business and marketing degree from Appalachian State, and returned home to work at the family business until it was sold in 1989.
McMurray served on the town’s planning board for 17 years and briefly worked in the development office at Montreat College. He was working at his brother’s insurance agency in Black Mountain when he was hired at the chamber.
“I’d been involved in the ambassador committee, so I was a little familiar with the workings of the chamber,” he said. “When I applied for this job I had a little bit of knowledge about how things worked and being local and knowing a lot of the business owners helped too.”
McMurray wasted no time making changes when he began his new position.
“We changed the days we held the Sourwood Festival,” he said of the annual gathering that brings tens of thousands of people to the area every August. “It had been on Friday and Saturday and we moved it to Saturday and Sunday, which made all the difference in the world.”
A few years later he worked with the chamber’s board to relocate the event to its current location along Sutton and Black Mountain Avenues. Before that, McMurray said, the festival struggled to find a permanent site.
“The Sourwood Festival is the biggest fundraiser for the chamber every year,” he said. “I’m proud of the success it’s had here over the years.”
Also in 1994, McMurray tapped into the marketing power of a new phenomenon known as the internet when he commissioned the chamber’s first website.
“That was a big deal at the time,” he said chuckling. “Montreat College helped us design that website and that was before a lot people had them.”
He revamped the town’s visitor guide and redesigned the map featuring Swannanoa Valley businesses.
The visitor center, which is named in honor of longtime executive director Andy Andrews and occupies a 100-year-old building that served as the home of McGraw’s Coffee Shop for decades, was in need of improvements in the early 1990s, according to McMurray.
“We expanded the parking lot, we didn’t have central heat or air and were cooling with a couple of window units,” he said. “Back then we used the fireplace to warm the whole place.”
That building now sees nearly 30,000 people each year walk through the doors, according to McMurray.
“A big part of what we do here is welcome people to the Valley,” he said. “Our volunteers, who are such a big part of the chamber’s success, greet them and help them find places to eat, shop and visit.
In recent years, McMurray oversaw the implementation of the “little town that rocks” marketing campaign that sees local artists submit work to be featured on rocking chairs situated around town. The chamber holds an annual auction for the chairs.
“Some of that money benefits the chamber and some of it we give to local nonprofit organizations,” he said. “One of the things we try to do at the chamber is promote a sense of community and this is one of the ways we do that.”
Glenda Morrow, who has worked closely with McMurray as the chamber’s administrative assistant for 14 years, will miss his easy-going personality and leadership. It was a bittersweet moment when McMurray announced his retirement on Feb. 7, she said.
“When he first told me he was planning to retire I didn’t want to see him go,” she said. “But I’m happy for him, because now he’ll have a chance to spend more time with his family.”
Board president Tonia Holderman expressed gratitude for the job McMurray’s done in his role as executive director.
“We appreciate all of the work Bob has done over the years for the Black Mountain – Swannanoa Valley Chamber,” she said in a statement. “He is a vital part of our community and his absence from the chamber will be greatly felt and he’ll be missed by many”
Carlos Showers has served on the chamber board as the appointed representative from the board of aldermen for nearly a decade, but he’s known McMurray for “a long time.”
“He was one of the first people I met when I moved to Black Mountain,” said Showers, who considers McMurray a “jewel of the Swannanoa Valley.”
“He’s as honest of a person as you’ll find,” the alderman said of the chamber director. “You always know that he truly has the Valley’s best interest at heart.”
Showers will be one of the people on the search committee that is tasked with finding a replacement for McMurray. The group was set to meet on Feb. 18, according to the alderman.
“He’s going to be a tough act to follow,” Showers said. “Whoever we hire won’t do the job the same way that Bob did it; he or she will have to make it their own, with direction from the board, of course.”
McMurray will continue to be an active part of the community after he retires, he said, but he looks forward to spending time with his wife Pam and their five grandchildren.
“I told him to take a deep breath when he retires and enjoy his time with his grandchildren,” Showers said. “As someone who recently retired myself, that’s what it’s all about.”
McMurray will also be a part of the committee that will ultimately select his successor. He looks forward to seeing some “new blood” heading up the chamber’s efforts, but he’s proud of the work he’s done.
“It’s been an honor to lead the chamber for the past 25 years,” he said. “We’ve grown to include over 350 members and helped make countless people feel welcome in the Valley. We have a great board and the chamber is in good shape financially, but the time sure has gone by fast.”