Anne Marie Bessette
Anne Marie Bessette said au revoir and bid adieu to the scenic northern fields of France to eventually arrive in Grand Rapids. There she worked as an assistant import manager for Leroy Merlin, one of that nation’s leading home improvement stores. Here she has spent the past five years helping the city’s smaller businesses improve in her role as a development specialist with the Neighborhood Business Specialist Program (NBSP).
The 36-year-old Waynesboro, Va., native, who was raised in Tacoma, Wash., lived in Leo, France, for two years and imported goods from almost everywhere for the chain of French stores.
“We worked with a lot of different countries, and worked on creating their own brand of nails, screws, nuts and bolts. So I worked with Taiwan and China,” she said. “They (Leroy Merlin) had just opened stores in Spain and Italy. So we had to work with all the languages.”
Bessette moved to France as a 22-year-old student, part of a college exchange program. She earned a graduate degree in history and international relations from the Université de Paris-Sorbonne on an International Rotary scholarship, and also met her husband, Jean Paul, there. Following graduation she joined Leroy Merlin, handling letters of credit and company relations with the firm’s foreign suppliers.
“I had to make sure that everything went through customs,” she said. “We got tile from Brazil, pottery from Vietnam and doors from the United States.”
After five years in France, she and Jean Paul came back to the U.S., first to Tacoma, then here, when Jean Paul took a management job at Zylstra Greenhouses in Kalamazoo. At the same time, Bessette went to the Hugh Michael Beahan Foundation at St. Andrews School as a fundraiser. Then in November 1997, she joined Executive Director Sharon Evoy at the NBSP.
Today, Bessette works with eight of the city’s 20 business associations. Stockbridge, West Fulton, East Fulton, West Leonard, Michigan Street, Wealthy Street and the Franklin Eastern district are her seven regulars, while the Cherry Diamond business group is her newest — having been formed last fall.
“My work allows me to interact with greatly diverse groups of people and areas,” she said of what she enjoys most about her work.
“I’m working to not only better the business districts, but also the communities around them. I work with the neighborhood associations on a lot of different projects.
“I’ve been witnessing the revitalization and development efforts in the neighborhoods, especially in areas where people aren’t aware of how far they have come. I interface with almost all of the city departments. So I have a much better understanding of government as a whole, which has been very valuable to me.”
It took Bessette quite a long time to come up with at least one thing she would change about her job if she could.
“I have eight areas and so there is always more that I could be doing for my areas. But I don’t have the time,” she said. “So I’m able to work with the main issues that come up, such as zoning, planning and construction. I do their quarterly newsletters, which are different for each association, as well as their membership drives, fundraising, banners and whatever is specific to that area.
“It would be nice not to be spread quite as thin. But, fortunately, I have a pretty strong network with the Neighborhood Business Alliance and that helps a lot. I’m able to use resources from one area to another pretty easily.”
Bessette has three children. Daughter Coralie is 10, while sons Blaise and Luke are 6 and 2, respectively. She earned a degree in history and art history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma before going to France, and is about halfway through her master’s in public administration at Grand Valley State University.
For fun, Bessette swims, sings in a choir whenever she can, and enjoys the arts. As a self-described nature lover, she said she travels as often as possible.
“My favorite trip was backpacking around eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had just gotten married and I only went for a couple of weeks with a friend. It was a very exciting time,” she said of the summer of 1989.
“I really like nature. I grew up in that environment. My dad was in Audubon. I was out walking in swamps looking for pollywogs and dragonfly nymphs. Wildlife is very important to me.”
As is her work. Besides her day job, Bessette also serves on the advisory council for the Local Initiative Support Corp. Main Street effort going on in the Wealthy district, and on the Northwest Community Resource Team of the Community-Oriented Government Initiative.
As for her immediate future, Bessette said she was looking forward to continuing her interaction with the business associations on such things as economic development grants and the new master plan.
“I think these hold a lot of opportunities for the city. It’s a very exciting time to be a part of this,” she said.“I have a unique situation — being city-funded, an employee of the chamber of commerce and governed by the Neighborhood Business Alliance — that allows me to look at issues from a lot of different perspectives, which makes my work very interesting.”