Chamber president innovated throughout Covid crisis to help local businesses

Chianese sold items for one, created events for others


Madison Cohen

Cristina Chianese, president of the Pelham Chamber of Commerce since September, created programs to boost businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The owners of gift shop Richard’s Passport on Wolfs Lane were reluctant to open their doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic and their advanced age. They weren’t sure if they’d be able to continue owning the store. Cristina Chianese stepped in, took over the store’s inventory, sold it in front of her house to customers found on the Moms of Pelham Facebook page and delivered packages to customers on weekends, equipped with a mask and gloves. 

That’s not all she did for Pelham’s business owners.

Chianese, named president of the Pelham Chamber of Commerce in September, spent the next eight months seeking innovative ways to help local businesses keep going through the extended winter of Covid. In the case of Richard’s Passport, she met with the owners once a week to discuss finances, what was selling well and what they could save money on by not ordering. Later in the process, she set up a social media presence and online store, bringing new customers to the business and allowing Richard’s Passport to remain in business.

With the return to the new normal, the store is now open to the public with its typical hours and staff. 

Richard’s Passport, now open with normal hours, was helped by Pelham Chamber President Cristina Chianese, who sold the store’s merchandise from her home during the crisis. (Madison Cohen)

As the pandemic changed the way the chamber did business, Chianese struggled with maintaining membership. The annual fee from members is its primary source of income. “It’s been this challenge of wondering, ‘How do you show real value?’” she said. “I want them every week to end their week and say, ‘I’m glad I joined the chamber,’ whether that’s because of updates, or our support with grant applications, or the marketing support that I offer to all members because of my marketing background, anything.” 

Chianese said she worked to maintain a sense of community and normalcy. She dreamed up events and giveaways to bring shoppers to Pelham locations for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Spring into Pelham and other holidays. She helped coordinate a campaign to support Asian-owned businesses. “We’re 86 members strong today,” Chianese said. Many of those are business owners who returned after letting their membership lapse, as well as new members who are interested in connecting. The increase in membership has led to increased success with many chamber-based initiatives as a result of the boost in community spirit among businesses.

In December, Susan Sepulveda, owner of local shop Sue’s Corner, was interested in bringing customers further north to her store’s location at 225 Fifth Ave. To assist with this, a mailbox for Letters to Santa was placed in front of her store, and towards the end of the event, Stephen Madey of the Pelham Children’s Center dressed up as Santa Claus to pick up the letters, bringing joy to participating children. 

Despite the challenges of the past year for Pelham, Chianese has remained optimistic about the work.

“We’ve had this opportunity to evoke a bit of emotion in people so that there’s not so much of a disconnect,” she said. “This has been an opportunity to really run with creativity, to see where there’s a wrong you can right—and that is a really fun place to be.”

This story originally ran in the print edition of the Pelham Examiner.