Paris’ parting: After 18 years, Bemidji Chamber President Lori Paris set to retire

BEMIDJI -- In Bemidji, the year 1999 wasn't just a transition to a new century. It also a transition to new leadership at the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bemidji Chamber of Commerce President Lori Paris will retire on Dec. 21 after being in the position for 18 years. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- In Bemidji, the year 1999 wasn’t just a transition to a new century. It also a transition to new leadership at the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.

That year was when Lori Paris took the helm of the chamber, becoming its president and guiding it forward into the 2000s.

Eighteen years later, Paris has just a few days left before her retirement on Thursday, Dec. 21.

While her nearly 20-year career with the chamber has been in northern Minnesota, though, Paris’ story begins south of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Paris was born in Kearney, Neb., where her father worked as a veterinarian, owning his own practice.

“We would vacation often in Minnesota, and my dad eventually said ‘Nuts to that, we’ll move there,’” Paris said. “So, he wound up landing a job with the federal government as a red meat and poultry inspector and we moved to Sauk Centre.”


Paris then found her way to Bemidji to attend classes at BSU. She also found work in radio and then working in retail at the Paul Bunyan Mall. Her work in the retail world eventually led her to becoming the mall’s coordinator, a position she held for 10 years before looking at the position to lead the chamber.

“I was recruited to apply, I had three people trying to recruit me for the position,” Paris said. “And, after 10 years in my mall job, I was in a spot where I needed to challenge myself and grow professionally.”

When she started, Paris said the chamber was much more ‘event based’ than it is today.

“I think since then, we’ve become more business savvy, the chamber has become much more of a business advocacy organization,” Paris said. “The last several years, for example, we’ve worked to create more workforce development programming.”

Her time at the chamber also has coincided with steady growth in Bemidji, as census numbers show the population for the city jumping from 11,917 in 2000 to 13,431 in 2010. Additionally, census data from 2016 shows the estimated population at 14,942.

“Bemidji has been fortunate in that it has been able to manage its growth. I think that’s been a strong initiative of the stewards of Bemidji,” Paris said. “As the community grows, the chamber has strived to grow with it. Taking care of our members has continued to be our No. 1 priority. So, in aligning our programs, events and mission, we’ve tried to align that with the changes within the community.”

A good time to go That alignment to meet the city’s growth is a good place to leave the chamber, Paris said, who described the timing to retire as “just feeling right.”

“I think it was something I was toying with. I was trying to figure out a time when I can enjoy life in a different avenue,” Paris said. “I wasn’t going to wait until I was too old to have fun and my husband and I are relatively healthy, and I guess the main decision was because we can.”


When Paris does finish her time as president, her replacement will already be in place to take the reins. Deb Pfaff, who comes from Illinois and started in late November, is the new chamber president and has been learning under Paris.

“Lori has been a fabulous mentor over the past three weeks. She’s been forthcoming, engaging and welcoming. She knows everyone in town, so that makes it very helpful to have those connections established,” Pfaff said. “She certainly has done it all with a great deal of finesse and I look forward to carrying on the traditions that have been started.”

Pfaff also said she plans to carry on chamber traditions, such as the Awards of Excellence, which became Paris’ favorite event of the chamber over the years.

“Having the opportunity to work with the past chairs and recognize an individual in our community with the Charlie Naylor Lifetime Achievement Award, that’s always been the pinnacle moment during the year, it’s the most magical,” Paris said. “Also, having a platform where businesses can be personally thanked for their contribution to the community.”

Along with the Awards of Excellence, Paris said the greatest part of her time with the chamber was the people she met.

“My biggest takeaway, the most important thing, is that I’ve developed some really solid relationships and friendships,” Paris said. “I was so immersed in the community, and it really is a phenomenal community to be part of.”

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