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Cathy Burns is first woman to lead Huntington Chamber

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For The State Journal

Last year, when Mark Bugher, president of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, announced his plans to retire, people immediately started speculating about who his successor might be. Ultimately, the group's executive committee decided that the best man for the job wasn't a man at all, but a woman. 

On Sept. 1, 2013, Cathy Burns became the Huntington Chamber's eighth president since its formation in the late 1880s – and its first female president in that long history. 

Bugher praised her selection, saying the Chamber's executive committee was looking for a new president who was already plugged into the local business community. Burns more than qualified on that score, he said. Her new post at the Chamber caps a career of nearly 30 years in economic, community and workforce development in the Huntington area. 

"I've known Cathy since she was economic development director for the city, and I'm well aware of her capabilities and talents," Bugher said. "She'll step right in," he predicted. 

And in her first few months on the job, Burns has done exactly that, putting her own stamp on the Chamber, although the changes she is making are more evolutionary than revolutionary. 

"I'm fortunate in that Mark assembled a first-rate staff at the Chamber," Burns said. "So that's something I don't have to worry about. But any organization has to evolve over time." 

Burns said the Chamber will continue with many of its well-established projects and programs, including "our annual Energy Symposium, Legislative Day, the Trade Show that's coming up in May and our Coffee & Conversation series of Friday morning discussion sessions with local CEOs." 

The Chamber has lined up a familiar name for its next Coffee & Conversation session Feb. 28 — Jeffrey McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, a CEO very much in the headlines as a result of the recent water contamination episode in Charleston. 

"I reached out to him and was very grateful that he agreed to come," Burns said. "It should be a great session." 

But while the Chamber keeps on doing what it's been doing, it's also implementing subtle changes. In one example, its Young Professionals Committee has been reinvented as Generation Huntington. Burns said one reason for the change is that the re-branded Huntington group is now "a better fit" with Generation West Virginia, Generation Charleston and other similar groups throughout the state. Another reason, she said, is that removing the words "young professionals" will "enable us to reach out to a broader segment of the community." 

Coming in May, Burns said, is the first in a new series of small business seminars that will see the Chamber partnering with the City of Huntington, Unlimited Future Inc. and the West Virginia Small Business Development Center. 

Now in the planning stage, she said, is a new Manufacturing Institute that will bring together local companies with common interests and problems. 

"We're going to start with the group of manufacturers located in the Prichard area of Wayne County," she said. "Our partner in this will be the Wayne County Economic Development Authority. After we get up and going in Wayne County, we'll see where we can go from there." 

Educated at Marshall University and Eastern Kentucky University, where she earned a Master of Public Administration degree, Burns started working with the City of Huntington in 1985 as assistant development director, moving up in 1992 to become executive director of the city's Department of Development and Planning. 

In 1999, she played a key role in the creation of the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone and became executive director of the zone. Much of the promised federal funding for the zone failed to materialize, but the program helped spawn three developable sites — The Point in Ohio, Kinetic Park and the HADCO Business Park. 

In 2007, The Herald-Dispatch chose her as its Business Innovator of the Year, and in 2008 the Chamber selected her a Star Volunteer. 

Following the end of the Empowerment Zone program, Burns became director of the Business Resource Training Center at Ohio University Southern. In 2012, she moved to the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing as a workforce development recruiter. 

She and her husband, Dale Burns, are business owners, operating Prime Copy Plus in Huntington. They have two daughters, Katie, a registered nurse in Lexington, Ky., and Kelsi, a cadet at U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 

Active in civic affairs, Burns is a trustee and development chair for the American Foundation for the Blind, a board member at TEAM for West Virginia Children, and both a board member and education committee member at the Huntington Museum of Art.