Tish Williams: A Force of Nature
The Hancock Chamber’s director of two decades reflects on a homecoming that changed the course of her life – and according to many, the future of the Coast community.
- by Maurice Singleton
- photos by Ellis Anderson and courtesy Hancock Chamber
However, something was missing.
As the mother of toddler twin girls, Williams recognized that despite her success, her daughters were missing the gift of growing up with close family influences and a nurturing community, the way she and her siblings were raised.
Everything came to a standstill one evening after work, as she sat on the back deck of her Maryland home.
“This is no way to raise my girls,” Williams thought to herself. Thumbing through the pages of Coastal Living Magazine, she came across an article calling Bay St. Louis “one of hottest places to live.”
“Why can’t we move home?” she wondered. Then the typical doubts came up: “How would we make a living?” and “What would I do?”
Coincidentally, the Wizard of Oz aired on television that evening, and as Dorothy wished herself back home in Kansas, the wheels started turning. Williams called her mother to tell her about the article and initially hinted at the possibility of moving her family back to Bay St. Louis. Her mother, the late Myrt Haas, wasted no time; she immediately organized her prayer group.
Within days, Williams received a call from the best man in her wedding, Bert Wallace, who discussed a job that appeared to be a perfect match for her skills and talents. Myrt was soon spreading the word that Tish and her family were coming home to the Bay.
After the move, Williams commuted to New Orleans for approximately a year and a half, working as chief operating officer for the LSU Health Sciences Foundation. Then, at a Business After Hours event in the Bay, Hancock-Whitney executive John Baxter and the late Jody Compretta approached Williams about the opportunity to be executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce.
Williams recalls having a later cell-phone conversation with Compretta as she maneuvered through New Orleans traffic. “You’d already be home by now if you took the Chamber job,” he teased.
Williams accepted the Chamber director position, as she saw it as a potentially easy job.
“I could be a mother first. I could do this blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back,” she remembers thinking. “And then Hurricane Katrina hit. Looking back now, I realize I’d been training for this job my whole life.”
When the unprecedented storm began heading toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, Williams went into action. “My disaster plan was to get the computers and put them in the back of the car and head to Jackson,” she said. “Which is what I did.”
The office in the Bay took on eight feet of water. Her foresight had at least saved the computers.
After about a week in Jackson, Williams contacted the Hancock Chamber’s then-president, John Chaszar, of Hollywood Casino Gulf Coast. She proposed immediately setting up an office in Jackson where “everything would be going on.”
Chaszar said, “I don’t think you understand. You are the director of the Chamber of NO Commerce.”
At that, Williams remembers having a Scarlett O’Hara moment. She answered, “John, as God is my witness, these businesses have never needed us more than they do right now.”
Williams credits Buz Olson, who was then Bay St. Louis Economic and Community Development Director, for suggesting she contact Coast Electric Power Association about getting space behind the Shell gas station to set up as a business resource center. She recalled that this was one of the few places in town that had internet access.
The business resource center idea was soon realized. Over the course of the next few pivotal years, the chamber was successful acquiring $11 million in forgivable loans for area businesses and community projects. It was the most effective business resource center in the country in response to Hurricane Katrina. Because of its success, President George Bush presented Williams the Phoenix Award, which is the highest recognition by the SBA for a public official.
“To be in the middle of rebuilding Hancock County and particularly the business community – was incredibly rewarding and energizing,” Williams continued.
“I was chairman of the search committee twenty years ago when we were looking for a new Chamber director,” said John Baxter. “I quickly realized that we had a very strong candidate wanting to come home and help improve the community she grew up in.
“I don’t know where we would be as a Chamber or community if Tish hadn’t taken that job,” he continued. “We are definitely better because she said ‘yes’ and came home. Tish is relentless when it comes to overcoming obstacles. She has a creative mind and uses that creativity to achieve a positive outcome.”
“It was not just me,” Williams explained. “My job is to bring people together to achieve common goals.
“One of those goals has been to make the organization financially stable,” Williams added. “We are now. If another disaster hits, we’re in a position to continue our operations for at least a year.”
One of the Hancock Chamber’s new projects is establishing a permanent resource center which will be located on the first floor of the former City Hall building on Second Street, where the chamber’s office is currently located. The center will be a “collaborative workspace” to help businesses connect and grow their opportunities.
“The new business center will focus on new and young business entrepreneurs, women- and minority-owned businesses as they get started, expand their businesses, and put people to work,” said Williams.
Williams said the business center project is being undertaken as a collaboration with the City of Bay St. Louis, at their request.
“Step one is getting funding to support the development of the business center. It’s going to require furnishings, equipment, electronics, and some personnel,” Williams explained. The center is expected to begin operation in eight months, yet another major community-building project overseen by the dynamic chamber director, in her third decade of service.
Williams’ career may be filled with milestones, her shelves may be full of awards, but it’s clear that the driving force behind her work is a mantra she shares with Dorothy:
There’s no place like home.
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