After 17 years of leading the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, Vicki Gardner is stepping away from her role as executive director in late August.
“For me it’s not retirement,” Gardner said last week after her announcement became public. “I’m still going to be working with the community, just in a different way.”
Gardner, who grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, moved to the lake with her husband, Tim, in the mid-1980s after spending 10 years in Houston.
“Ending up at Smith Mountain Lake was no accident at all,” Gardner said in an interview with Smith Mountain Laker magazine in 2011. After conducting extensive research, they purchased a lakefront home in Goodview in 1986 where they still live.
“It’s just the most amazing place to live,” Gardner said in 2011. “We could have gone anywhere, and I’m so grateful we chose Smith Mountain Lake.”
When Gardner took over as the chamber’s executive director in 2002, she described its state as “very fragile.” Her first years there were spent putting together policies and procedures and working solely with volunteers.
“We operated more as a visitor center,” she recalled. “The idea was to connect businesses and have an organization to bring them together.”
The chamber grew from just over 180 members to 625 in the first three years of her tenure. Today, there are more than 750 members. Gardner also helped raise the region’s profile through marketing initiatives, developed member networking and educational opportunities, as well as spearheaded a remodeling and expansion of the state-certified Visitor Center at Bridgewater Plaza.
Gardner is a graduate of the U.S Chamber’s Institute for Organizational Management, a four-year program for leaders of chambers and other nonprofits, and has served as president of the Virginia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and on the Virginia Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
“Vicki’s accomplishments are truly too long to list,” Lindsey Coley, chair of the chamber’s board of directors, said in a news release. “Her energy, enthusiasm and love for the people, businesses and organizations that make up the Smith Mountain Lake community are boundless. Hers will be big shoes to fill, for sure.”
On Aug. 26 2015, Smith Mountain Lake made international headlines when Gardner and WDBJ (Channel 7) journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot during a live broadcast at Bridgewater Plaza just outside Gardner’s office. Parker and Ward died from their injuries, and Gardner was seriously wounded.
The shooting happened as Gardner was being interviewed about plans for the lake’s 50th anniversary celebration. “That was the sole purpose for why we were out here,” Gardner told The (Lynchburg) News & Advance in 2017. “It was very happy and very upbeat, and then of course this tragic thing happened.”
Gardner underwent her latest surgery in January to fuse several vertebrae in her lower back to relieve intense pain that stemmed from the shooting. In an interview with Laker Weekly in January, Gardner’s husband said the pain made it difficult for his wife to get out of bed most mornings.
“She had massive back pain,” Tim Gardner said. “She just never let anyone know.”
Now a grandmother of six, Gardner said she’s looking forward to having more time to spend with family and for hobbies such as painting, fishing and relaxing at the lake. She said she also plans to assist her husband with his lake-based home inspection business and continue lobbying for a rail stop in Bedford.
“You will see me around this community more than ever,” Gardner said.
Coley said a search for Gardner’s replacement will begin immediately.