After 24 years with the organization, Angela Halvorsen Smith has taken on the role of Executive Director of the Rainy River Future Development Corporation (RRFDC), and will continue to help promote the region’s economic development and support local entrepreneurs in years to come.
Speaking on her time spent at the RRFDC, Halvorsen Smith noted that her moving to the Executive Director position highlights a journey that began 24 years ago, when she began as an intern right out of school. Even before then, though, she had crossed paths with Nancy and Geoff Gillon, the latter having served as Executive Director before Halvorsen Smith took on the job this year.
“When I was in high school I was in business courses and quite enjoyed them and volunteered to run the Muskie Mart,” she recalled.
“I did that at lunchtime and I was responsible to make sure there were staff in there, make sure there were supplies. So at the end of high school I got an award for Outstanding Business Talents. The teacher that was involved with that was Nancy Gillon, and at the end of the year I was planning on going to school in the fall, and she invited me to come and work at her camp.”
The camp, Gillon’s Bears Pass Trading Post, was Halvorsen Smith’s summer job that year, where she said she helped them organize guest check-in cards and did some general business work as well. After a few years of school and work, taking a year of an accounting program she said just wasn’t the right fit, Halvorsen Smith said she saw a course being offered in Fort Frances that was a partnership between colleges here, in International Falls and in Thunder Bay.
“It was for International business, and inviting international students,” she said.
“Because of our proximity to the border we had classes on this side, classes on that side, we sometimes had to go to Thunder Bay for certain things. It was a two year program here, but I liked it so much that I ended up going back to Thunder Bay for my third year, which was the International Business Management.”
With the program freshly under her belt and on the lookout for a job in her field, she said a chance encounter with Geoff Gillon in the former Celeste’s brought her a serendipitous tip.
“I said to him I just graduated from this course, do you know any jobs tht might be coming up?” she said.
“He said to me, ‘well, I can’t really say anything right now, but watch the newspaper over the next couple of weeks.’ So in the next couple of weeks this ad came out for a project coordinator. It was a youth internship so you had to be under 29, you had to have graduated from a business course, you had to be residing in the area. I fit into all the things and I knew Geoff. He knew my work ethic, my personality. So I got the interview and, obviously, I got the job.”
From her internship, Halvorsen Smith said she then moved to a program called the Northern Ventures Initiative that was aimed at helping female, youth and Indigenous entrepreneurs. During that three-year program, the employee at RRFDC that was in charge of lending left, and so she applied for that job, a job she then served in for the rest of her career, right up until she took the Executive Director position.
Halvorsen Smith explained that working towards the executive director position has always been in the back of her mind as she worked at RRFDC, but it was only within the last few years that it became a more concrete possibility as Gillon, who had served as the Executive Director since 2017, started to throw the “retirement” word around.
“It’s not been a quick transition,” she said.
“It’s been something that we’ve been slowly building into. I think it was around December of last year he said ‘well, this is my plan,’ and he gave it to the board. The board then struck a committee, the Succession Planning Committee, and started looking at their options. Very early on they asked me ‘are you interested?” And I explained to them that I had had this as a goal along the way. They asked questions, and I think they really spent their time and looked at all their options, looked at the labour market, and right after I got back from my wedding, I think it was September 27, one of the board members approached me and gave me the offer. Of course, I accepted.”
Halvorsen Smith said that even now as she has taken on the Executive Director role, Gillon himself will be sticking around in a slightly reduced capacity at the organization until March of 2025 in order to help bring her up to speed and give her some guidance in her new position.
“My position now will be to manage the staff, manage the projects, manage the lending, kind of a little bit of everything,” she explained.
“Geoff is not leaving the organization to retire officially until the end of March 2025, so it will be a fairly nice, even, slow transition, which I’m looking forward to because when I took on the investment position here, there was no one to guide me, whereas now I’ll have his guidance to bring me along the way.”
For his part, Gillon said it’s just time for him to step back, and that the organization is in good hands.
“It’s the appropriate time, I’ll be aging out, so to speak,” he said.
“The corporation looked to have a smooth transition from what I’ve been doing to Angela, so I’ll be working with her over the next year, more like a mentor. But it’s really great that she’s able to move into the position and put her hands on the helm.”
As the executive director, Halvorsen Smith said the RRFDC will continue to offer the same programs and assistance they always have. However, she also has a handful of new ideas for the organization going forward, most of which she can’t really go into as the organization and board continue to work on an official transition plan, but one thing she did say she’d like to see more of around town is celebrating our local businesses, much like the RRFDC did with help from mayor Andrew Hallikas for the opening of one of the town’s newest businesses.
“One of the things I would like to see is more celebrations about the businesses that we’re helping,” she said.
“For example we had The Hallett [Brewing], that was a nice celebration that we could do with the mayor, with our board members, with the media, that kind of stuff. I’d like to bring that more into the light and really encourage those folks to do grand openings and celebrations and ribbon cuttings and all those kinds of things.”
All in all, Halvorsen Smith said she’s excited for the new challenges she will get to take on after being in her role for the past 24 years.
“It’s nice to have something fresh and new,” she said.
“I love the fact that I’ll be able to mentor the person coming in to do what I’ve been doing, and I know what good work we do, so I want to be able to continue that. I also want to be able to be open to more opportunities as well, so I’m really happy that our board saw that I will have that skill and determination and longevity to take the organization through the next 20 years or however long it may be.”