By: Jesse Davis
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
After more than two decades of leading the Swanton Chamber of Commerce, CEO Neil Toeppe is finally handing off the reins.
Toeppe has run the organization since 2003. He had recently retired from a professional career in the telecommunications and tech sector and was spending his time with his wife split between their home in Swanton and a condo in Maui.
He was in town, golfing with Pastor Brian Haller of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, when Haller mentioned the chamber was looking for a new leader.
“He thought since I wasn’t doing anything, I would be interested in doing that,” Toeppe said. “So I did, and I went through the interview process with the board members, and they offered me the position. I told them I would do it for a year or two while they found somebody else.”
It turns out they wouldn’t need to find somebody else for 21 years. “It was interesting. The chamber, when I came on, was kind of referred to as the community party planner.”
“They were involved with the Christmas in Swanton event, the Corn Festival, parties in the park, and those sorts of things. When the chamber was looking for a new director, they were also looking for a new direction. They wanted to be more business directed, more economic growth directed,” Toeppe said.
To that end, he focused his efforts on Main Street. At the time, he said, most of the buildings were vacant or underused, owned by absentee landlords who hadn’t been paying much attention to maintenance, particularly on the exteriors.
“What we saw was not a lot of investment going into buildings, but just landlords taking money out of buildings through rent without a lot of upgrades,” he said.
Upon further research, Toeppe said he found Swanton had the highest median income in Fulton County, the highest median home values, and the highest amount of disposable income, all of which seemed to provide an opportunity to attract businesses.
After making a presentation to one business that was looking at Swanton in addition to multiple other towns, Toeppe and the chamber were able to convince them to choose Swanton, a moment he called the start of the renaissance in town.
“Then we got Benfield Wines, who moved in and renovated that building inside and out. Studio 101 Salon bought an old building – that was during COVID in 2020 – they completely renovated that building inside and out.”
“Another gentleman bought the old bank building and renovated it, got a tenant in that. A couple more buildings on Main Street got renovated, and then we got an eye doctor who chose to move to a building on Main Street that needed a lot of work, they’re doing that now,” he said.
Toeppe said the changes even drew a local landscaping business to volunteer to manage the flower beds on Main Street.
“We’ve seen a dramatic change in the way Main Street looks and the number of businesses in the community and the amount of pride residents are taking in Main Street,” Toeppe said.
In addition to running the chamber itself and working to draw economic development to the town, Toeppe has also served on or been a member of a large variety of other community groups and agencies.
Toeppe’s community involvement over the years has included: Fulton County Community Improvement Corporation – Past Vice President; Fulton County Economic Development Corporation – Charter Executive Committee Member; Swanton Public Library – Board member and past President; Swanton Area Community Coalition (SACC) – Co-founder, Past President, and Treasurer; Swanton Ohio Historical Society – Founder and Past President; Northwest Ohio Business Alliance– Co-founder and Past Vice President; Fulton County Visitors Bureau Board – Charter Board Member and Past President; Northwest State Business Advisory Committee; Northwest State Foundation Ad Hoc Board Member; Communication Workers of America, Local 4319 – Past President; Swanton Area Chamber of Commerce – President and CEO; Valleywood Golf Club – Secretary Emeritus; American Legion Post 335 – Past Commander; American Legion Post 479 – Member.
Now 78, he is also at the end of his first term as mayor of Swanton and about to begin his second after being reelected in November.
It is with that and a his previous decades of work history in mind that led to Toeppe’s decision to step down from the chamber this year.
“My wife now is a bit concerned that I’ll have extra time on my hands to bother her,” Toeppe joked, also pointing out he’d be remiss if he didn’t say just how supportive she has been of all his endeavors through the years.
He also shared his thankfulness for the treatment he has received from the business community at large.
“The business community in Swanton is so great, they are very supportive of the community in many ways, most of them very quiet and not asking for recognition in the way they support community groups and organizations,” he said.
“They have been very welcoming to me in sharing about their businesses, their plans, and their futures. I’ve met so many wonderful business people in Swanton, it really warms my heart.”
Toeppe and the chamber’s board of directors are currently in the process of interviewing applicants for the position to begin next month.