2012 OTTY Awards: Helping the Small Business Heart Beat Strong

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By Dan Rosenblum

Nancy Ploeger is working on one of her biggest challenges yet. Over the past few years, the building of the Second Avenue Subway, one of the largest construction projects in the country, has put retail businesses behind barricades and meant ever-changing work along the corridor.

As the director of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Ploeger is helping those 400 affected businesses build a community and find a voice.

"It's very hard for an individual business to do their marketing and media," she said.

For Ploeger, 62, helping businesses stick out began early in her teens. She dropped ping-pong balls out of a helicopter and handed out cherry pies dressed at Martha Washington to help her father, who worked for Sears.

As an Upper East Sider, Ploeger walks through the construction every day and sees the walkways that obscure stores and make it hard for elderly people or stroller-wielding parents to navigate. Besides its social media efforts, the Chamber has organized a restaurant week, art projects and other ways for affected stores and restaurants to attract shoppers and diners.

Dealing with the subway is only part of the Chamber's work. In fact, in the country's largest business center, the Chamber is one of only a few helping small businesses grow and working with governmental and international partners. At the Chamber, Ploeger also reaches out to other women, the LGBT community and young entrepreneurs.

"We run around trying to keep the plate spinning with all of these initiatives," she said.

The Chamber also sponsors a community benefit fund that raises money for organizations on the Upper East Side.

Ploeger came to New York after graduating from Monmouth University without a clear-cut plan. She worked at Federated Department Stores (now Macy's) and for more than a decade at TSI, which owns New York Sports Clubs. In 1994, she became executive director of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, growing its membership from 250 to more than 2,000.

That St. Louis upbringing helped her understand the faces behind small businesses. Ploeger said her favorite part of the job is getting emails from local business owners thanking her for the chance to network or for business discounts.

"I'm from St. Louis," she said. "We're all about people."

For someone so connected to the growth of the nation's largest business center, Ploeger said she finds joy in going upstate on weekends to feed deer, walk in the woods and ride horses.

"I really am a country girl," she said.

A fan of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts at economic development, she doesn't know what to expect from a new mayor in 2014.

"I just hope that our economy is on the roll again," she said.

Ploeger said the High Line, Hudson Yards and the East River Ferry Service are only a few of the exciting projects in which the Chamber is trying to help local small business owners. "Every day is exciting, different and new," she said.

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