As a skilled young woman, clearly ambitious, studious, and eager to get her hands dirty wherever life would take her, it was apparent early on that Katie Worthington was cut out for a unique role in leadership. Making her way back around to the familiar territory of the Polk County area, she quickly dove into the community, embracing every opportunity to make this city her home. Before long, Worthington would find herself in the unique place of leadership as president of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. Breaking the common mold, in a role predominantly dominated by men, Worthington’s leadership creates a new access for change.
photography by Dustin Barrow
If one were to ask Katie Worthington where she believed her career would take her, it’s unlikely she would’ve imagined she’d be in the prominent role of president of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce which she currently holds. But, in many ways, it’s her willingness to expect the unexpected, and learning to fully embrace it, that has brought Worthington to where she is today.
As she begins to talk about her childhood upbringing, Worthington’s endearing story shapes up as some real-life version of This is Us.
Worthington, 34, and her siblings (Ryan and Chelsea) were born at a teaching hospital in West Virginia — the nearest hospital to her parents’ Ohio home that could handle delivering triplets at the time. The family moved often throughout her childhood as her father developed his career with United Way, traveling from Cambridge, Ohio; to Brandon, Florida; Williamsburg, Virginia; and Nashville, Tennessee, before coming to Lakeland in 1997.
As a student at Santa Fe Catholic High School, about half of Worthington’s classmates were from Winter Haven. Even her boyfriend at the time was from Winter Haven. After Worthington graduated with a degree from UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, as well as becoming engaged to her high school sweetheart, the couple decided to move back to the Polk County area to a secure job her fiancé had in the city.
Although the marriage didn’t work out, Worthington says with a smirk that she “did get custody of Winter Haven, so I consider that a win. Everything happens for a reason,” she adds, “even if we don’t understand it at the time. And now I am blessed with an amazing husband, Justin Decker, and we are expecting our first child in May.”
The couple had attended high school together and reconnected in 2014 over Facebook. “Ah, modern romance,” Worthington swoons. A project manager for Tucker Construction in Winter Haven, Decker is originally from Lakeland, yet he has seamlessly made Winter Haven his home. With both sets of parents still in the Lakeland area, it creates an ideal setting for a close family life, which the couple treasures.
AN UNANTICIPATED RETURN
Like many local young people in the Polk County area, Worthington never anticipated returning after college. “Frankly, you don’t appreciate the value of being surrounded by a true ‘community’ until you’re out in the real world for a bit,” she says. But, unlike some others that do wind up back in town, Worthington was determined that, if she were to return, she was going to get as involved as possible and learn to love this city she found herself back in.
Stepping into a career as a business banker for SunTrust Bank, it was essential for Worthington to network and create new relationships in order to develop new business. And the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce was the ideal opportunity to make that happen. With the help of “established professionals” who served as mentors, like Bonnie Parker and Bill Dorman, and learning from the example set by her parents Marilyn and Terry, Worthington began to volunteer for the Chamber and other non-profits while simultaneously building a community network.
“I started at a pretty young age of 24 diving into volunteering in the community. I’ve been lucky through my career thus far to always work for people who valued community engagement as a vital part of business development and employee satisfaction,” says Worthington. Granted, while it takes years for so many young people today to truly grasp the importance of relationships within an established community, Worthington appeared to be a few steps ahead in this simple life lesson, allowing her to make some considerable strides early on in her career within leadership of the city.
Initially Worthington started out simply attending networking events. Along with Allison Beeman and a committee of other young professionals, they eventually founded the Winter Haven Young Professionals Group in 2008 (now Endeavor Winter Haven) — the young professional development arm of the Chamber. As the founding chairwoman of that group, Worthington was able to sit on the Chamber’s Board of Directors to get a good feel for the work the Chamber did.
When Worthington’s predecessor, Bob Gernert, announced his retirement, she admits that applying for the position was not her first thought. Rather she had been pouring her energy into the Chamber in her role as foundation chairwoman for two years and the Chamber board’s vice chair of tourism for a year. Worthington had also been working at CNP Agency in what she considers was truly her “dream job,” assisting clients in areas such as tourism, economic development, education, and much more — subjects she remains passionate about to this day. “Marketing and PR are very much like the Chamber in which you get to absorb a plethora of information about numerous subjects on the regular, something I obviously love. I’m kind of nerdy like that,” Worthington says, though hardly anyone would call a leader who could bring a developing city to this point nerdy.
Thanks to her bosses and clients at CNP, Worthington was already exposed to many of the organizations and issues she would eventually handle as Chamber president. She credits the encouragement of several people on the Board of Directors of the Chamber to push her to finally apply for the position.
A NEW ROLE
Some may wonder what a “normal” day looks like for the president of the Chamber of Commerce, “Normal is a relative term,” says Worthington. While the only norm of her week-to-week appears to be wearing a variety of hats encompassing a wide range of subjects, her primary role at the Chamber is advocacy for the businesses in the greater Winter Haven area, no matter their size. But, to give you a more defined taste, Worthington explains, “Over the last week, I’ve sat in meetings and/or worked on projects regarding our public transportation system; road infrastructure; state legislative issues; our Winter Haven public schools; possible zoning issues; our post-secondary educational opportunities and workforce development; expansion of healthcare access in the community; and, with our amazing Chamber team (Amanda Jo, Brianna, Jennifer, and Amber) and volunteers, executed two community events, CommunityFest and Taste of Winter Haven, that welcomed thousands of community members to downtown Winter Haven. That’s a pretty typical week.”
In many ways, the Chamber of Commerce works as a “movement organization.” Their clear goal: to advance commerce and community through serving, representing, and enhancing business growth. But, when referring to the Chamber, Worthington is identifying far more than the five staff members (including herself) who make up the employees, or even the 22 volunteers who sit as the Board of Directors. “It’s actually over 750 businesses and their thousands of employees who are working on our initiatives,” she says. In short, a Chamber of Commerce is an association of businesses that has come together to move the community forward. And that is the sole focus of Winter Haven’s Chamber of Commerce.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
From an organizational perspective, the Chamber’s focus is to create the greatest return on investment for members by advocating on their behalf, providing countless opportunities to grow their circles of influence (and ultimately their bottom line), and assist in marketing themselves. The Chamber serves as a connector, bringing members to the resources they need to strengthen their businesses.
“As a young person, or really a person of any age, it’s not hard to get involved if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and get work done,” Worthington says. “There isn’t this ‘old boys’ club’ or web of political rigmarole to navigate like you see in other communities. There’s an access to make change like I’ve not seen in other areas. As a 25 year old, you can sit with the ‘influencers’ in the community simply because you want to learn and volunteer. And what’s amazing is those ‘influencers’ want more people involved, new ideas, collaboration etc. You just have to raise your hand.”
A CITY REVIVED
When Worthington reflects on the ways Winter Haven has changed over the years, she says it appears to be an entirely different city. “Compared to when I started dating my high school boyfriend from Winter Haven in 1998, it’s almost unrecognizable. Downtown was a ghost town. When we came back from college in 2005, the city was completing its public investment in the downtown core, including moving the public library, [adding] streetscaping, and the park renovations.
“An injection of public investment has sparked almost $150 million of private investment in the downtown core which is what you see today,” Worthington continues. “We have over 14 restaurants downtown, growing shopping options, and expansion onto feeder streets like 3rd to Grove Roots and The Bike Shop and down to Old Towne Square on the other end. Now the South Central Park renovations are going on, which is always painful during construction, but the end product will be a piazza specifically designed for community events. It’s exciting to see that investment hopping over US 17 and 1st Street into the surrounding neighborhoods.”
A revived Cypress Gardens Boulevard, largely due to the LEGOLAND Florida Resort, has reshaped the tourism industry and the city’s visitor demographic to families with children age 2-12. “We still welcome thousands of ‘snowbirds’ each year,” notes Worthington, “and what we have found is that baby boomers want all the same things millennials do: walkable downtowns, arts and culture, unique cuisine, and a small-town community vibe.”
As far as home life goes, Worthington and her husband are overjoyed and “a little terrified” anticipating the new arrival of their baby girl. “Skylar Marie Worthington Decker … Marie and Worthington both being middle names because we couldn’t agree, and having Worthington in there was important to me.”
The couple enjoys staying active and taking advantage of all the nature that encircles the Winter Haven area, from the Circle B Bar Reserve to Lake Hollingsworth (Lakeland) to the Lake Howard trails.
Self-professed fitness junkies, Decker went to UF “and is a diehard UF football fan,” says Worthington, “although this year my UCF Knights shined more (and I didn’t let him forget it).”
Along with a love of running and cycling, Worthington enjoys the arts in Theatre Winter Haven and the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando. Their two dogs (both eight years old: a mini Australian shepherd and a mixed breed they think is a Catahoula-beagle mix that is partially blind and deaf) are “the sweetest cuddlers you’ve ever met. We’d have 10 dogs if we could. Maybe someday.”
For now, Worthington looks forward to bringing little Skylar into the world, to a wonderful home and, without a doubt, a beautiful future for the city.