She has been called "the de facto mayor of Towson," and last Friday morning Nancy Hafford was doing what mayors occasionally do — touring a major, nearly century-old business in town.
"They have 1,100 employees … they want to be part of the community and take part in our activities," Hafford said after leaving the campus of Stanley Black & Decker Inc., the global tool and consumer-products company that opened a drill and compressor factory in Towson in 1917.
Hafford is executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, a role that immerses her in Towson's business, nonprofit, political, development, civic, government and education circles — a virtual Venn diagram of influence.
As she enters her 11th year on the job, Baltimore County is honoring Hafford this month as its "Woman of the Year" in a program of the county Commission for Women that salutes those who make "significant, unique and lasting contributions" in their communities.
Hafford was among 30 women nominated for the award, which has been presented for more than three decades and coincides with the congressionally authorized national Women's History Month.
"Her contributions have improved the overall quality of life of its citizens a hundredfold," wrote the committee that selected Hafford. "Aside from the business community, she also spends her time advocating for disadvantaged children and mentoring young women. She has become a unifying force in Baltimore County through her leadership, compassion, and understanding of what needs to be done to help our county thrive."
"She has an amazing passion for what she does," adds Keith Scott, president and CEO of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, the largest of about a dozen county business advocacy groups.
Hafford, 59, has won praise for fostering a hospitable relationship between businesses, residents and the burgeoning Towson University and for the birth and revival of popular community events and festivals.
"The opportunities [in Towson] are immense," Scott said, adding that Hafford strives "to make sure the residents are heard so we can continue to have amazing opportunities."
'A lot of energy'
Before she was hired to manage the 400-member business group, Hafford spent five years as a district manager for the fitness company, Gold's Gym International Inc., overseeing some 250 employees and volunteering at chamber of commerce events.
"She took over and brought a lot of energy; she really wanted to do some new things and things that mattered in the community," said Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, which represents some three dozen neighborhood groups.
Hafford and an executive assistant, the chamber's only full-time staff, marshal more than 500 volunteers to manage festivals and ongoing events, such as "Feet on the Street" on summertime Friday nights, the quintessentially all-American Fourth of July parade, December's Winterfest, a weekly farm market in season, the Taste of Towson restaurant sampler and the upcoming Towsontown Fest, a two-day event that in its nearly 50-year run has grown to attract 250,000 people.
Hafford was instrumental in the launch of "Feet on the Street," a family-friendly happy hour in the central business district featuring bands, food and activities for children, Ertel said.
"It might sound like a trivial thing but it has brought people into Towson; it has become a community thing," Ertel said. "Towson is changing but what we all cherish is that Towson is a special place. It has that small-town feel. She helps give it that sense of place."
Hafford studied marketing and business at Miami Dade College, a Florida community college, and entered business in her early 20s, opening a 125-seat restaurant in the Miami area, an experience she said helped refine a love of the hospitality industry and provided an "education by hard knocks."
"My greatest success comes from my failure," she said during an interview in her office in the chamber's 1920s building on West Chesapeake Avenue. "You stumble ¿ and you learn from that."
As more women enter business — the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 28 percent of the 7,232 businesses in the Towson area are women-owned — Hafford believes their life experiences steel them for the multiple challenges facing companies.
"Juggling a family and career, that prepares you," she said. "You can't grow if you don't take educated risks."
Hafford acknowledges that her outlook (Ertel describes her as "a perennially positive person") and her high energy (she typically wakes at 4 a.m. and exercises several hours a day) are essential to her job as a business ambassador.
Preparing for change
Towson remains ripe for growth, with its $75,000 median household income, well-educated residents and the state's second-largest public university, which has more than 22,000 students and 3,500 full- and part-time employees.
Development often creates friction and, while Hafford admits "we're going to have differences" over growth, she attempts to set a positive tone.
"What I want, and what I see as my job, is to get everybody working together," she said. "The business community is the front door to the residential community."
One of the major projects on the horizon, Towson Row, will bring upscale offices, apartments, a hotel, shops and Baltimore County's first Whole Foods grocery.
With about 1 million square feet of space – about a sixth of the size of the Pentagon – the $350 million project will include badly needed, off-campus housing for students at neighboring Towson University.
Hafford believes the university's presence can't be understated and is an asset not to be overlooked.
"We are a college town," she said. "We need to provide opportunities, jobs. We don't want them [students] to leave when they graduate."
She is also sensitive that a wave of chain retailers and eateries arriving in new projects could swamp long-standing mom-and-pop establishments.
"You hope you are planning wisely," Hafford said. "If you knock out the mom-and-pops, you become cookie-cutter."