AUGUSTA — A retired Navy officer and current medical practice manager who founded a pro-business community group in Lisbon has been chosen as the next leader of Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Ross Cunningham, of Lisbon, was selected by the regional chamber’s board of directors to become its new president and CEO, starting Jan. 5. He will replace Peter Thompson, who plans to retire after many years of leading the business and community group.

“I think they made a good choice,” Thompson said of the selection of Cunningham to take over his job in a few months.

Cunningham was a Navy lieutenant commander, serving at Brunswick Naval Air Station until he retired in 2008 after 22 years in the Navy. He is now practice manager for general surgery and women’s health care at Mid Coast Medical Group in Brunswick.

In 2012 he founded and became president of Positive Change Lisbon, a nonprofit group of business leaders and citizens meant “to build a stronger community, to promote collaboration, and encourage commercial development and increased investment in existing properties,” according to a news release from chamber officials.

Cunningham said Wednesday he and others formed Positive Change Lisbon after attending Maine Development Foundation annual meetings. There they saw towns that were succeeding because teams of volunteers were involved in doing things together and not just relying on town government, schools or chambers of commerce to make positive things happen.

“It really has made a big difference,” Cunningham said. The group’s activities have included organizing cleanup days, designing and installing “Welcome to Lisbon” banners in town, and bringing together a panel of developers and real estate agents to discuss ways the town can work together to invite development.

“It changed the attitude of people in town, because they see good things happening,” he said. “That’s something I hope we can bring (to the Kennebec Valley Chamber), that positive energy, and remind folks things are good and there are ways to make things better all the time.”

Kim Vandermeulen, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, said the board was “very impressed with the experience, skills and enthusiasm of Ross Cunningham. He will provide key leadership of the business-based organization, which is focused upon strengthening the economy of our capital region. Ross will work closely with current CEO Peter Thompson until Peter’s February retirement after 26 years in the post.”

Vandermeulen, who agreed to serve a second year as chairman during the transition from Thompson to Cunningham, said the board is not concerned that Cunningham does not yet have the community ties and knowledge of Thompson, a longtime local resident who, before taking the chamber job, was mayor of Augusta.

“That’s not a concern. It’s very clear he is a personable guy and will meet and work with folks in the area,” Vandermeulen said. “We’re really excited and he’s really excited. He’s got a lot of energy. Peter has done a great job for many, many, many years, so (Cunningham) has big shoes to fill. But Peter is going to work with him.”

Thompson also said he doesn’t see Cunningham’s relative lack of ties to the community as a concern.

“He’s a very sharp young man, and I think he is going to quickly pick up and understand the community well,” said Thompson, who did not know Cunningham until meeting him at his job interview. “I have confidence he’ll learn it fast.”

Cunningham said it will take him some time to get acclimated but noted that having someone without extensive existing ties in the community offers the benefit of a fresh set of eyes.

He said he looks forward to meeting more people in the area and does not anticipate making immediate changes at the chamber.

He said he may remain involved in Positive Change Lisbon in an advisory capacity, but “my energy will clearly be directed towards Augusta. I’m thrilled (about the job). This is an opportunity to do what I love to do every day. To be able to do this as a primary occupation is a blessing.”

Cunningham said he’ll probably continue to live in Lisbon, where his daughter attends elementary school, and commute to the Augusta-based chamber job. He also has an adult son in the Marines and a college-age daughter.

He is a graduate of the University of Maine with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and also holds a master’s degree in business administration from Southern New Hampshire University.

Vandermeulen said they received interest from more than 30 applicants, whom board members narrowed down to eight and then four finalists.

“It was a very good” pool of candidates, he said. “We narrowed it down to four, and the four were all very good candidates.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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