Claire McFadden knows love at first sight—she experienced it when she first walked in downtown Benicia.

“I didn’t know anything about Benicia when I applied for a job here,” says Claire, who started working at the Heritage Inn Hotel on East Second Street in 1988. “I went downtown for the first time and felt like I’d come home. I absolutely loved it. Once I got involved here, I flourished.”

She married a Benicia police officer and moved here in 1991, and both their sons were born here. But life has a way of taking unexpected turns, even in a love story.

An episode of vertigo in 1999 turned out to be the first signs of multiple sclerosis. Claire was then the general manager of the hotel, a job that required 12 or more hours a day plus being on call around the clock.

“It took me a very long time to accept that I couldn’t do everything,” she says. In 2001, Claire moved to sales and marketing for the company that owns the hotel, the Heritage Hotel Group.  The family moved a year later to Moraga, where Claire grew up and where her parents still live. “It’s nice to have Mom and Dad close by because they really help.”

Claire has reduced her work hours. “Now I do very lightweight community relations. I like to say it’s part-time, but it does take a lot of time,” she says, her hearty laugh filling the room. She remains active in Benicia.  A past president of the Chamber of Commerce and former member of the city’s Open Government Commission, Claire now is a board member for the chamber, serves on the city’s Economic Development Board and chairs that board’s Tourism Committee.

What made you fall in love with Benicia? It’s a special, special community. It’s an interesting mix of bedroom community in Southampton; the Industrial Park, which is the economic engine of the town; and then the lovely downtown with the water and all the parades and events.

In terms of the community itself, Benicia really does typify a small town. You have a community that’s very engaged. You don’t see that a lot anymore.

How much time do you spend each week on your community board posts? The estimate that’s official is 10 hours a week, but it’s upwards of that. But I enjoy it. I find it keeps me engaged, it keeps my mind active. I do attend almost every City Council meeting. I find it fascinating to see how people come to decisions. Watching it on TV or reading minutes is not even close to being there.

What are goals for your community service? One of my goals, and it’s coming to fruition, is to see economic development become a priority of the City of Benicia. I don’t think it was a singular focus in the past. We’ve accomplished that.

My next goal is to make sure one of the city’s major focuses will be making improvements in the Industrial Park. We, all of us, need to continue to place the Industrial Park as a priority for economic development. People need to know who pays for all these programs—the parks and rec programs, the library, local police and fire services.  The Industrial Park needs some attention; it needs some infrastructure. Broadband seems to be the next goal.

The bottom line is the Industrial Park generates revenue for the city and we need to recognize that. People need to realize that we’re lucky we don’t have to rely solely on property tax revenue.

How do you remain calm when tension is escalating during meetings? I don’t take it personally, and I don’t bring my personal feelings into it. People have a tendency to complain. It’s important for everyone to have their say, but we’re not going to get anywhere by complaining.

I want to get something done. We are all in this together so let’s move forward. It’s always been my philosophy that you’ve got to focus on the positive and move forward. Sometimes you have to put your feelings aside and realize we’re all here for the same reason: we want Benicia to be successful; we want Benicia to do well.

Do you serve on similar boards in Moraga? No, but they recently tried. A friend invited me to a meeting and the city manager made a beeline for me. He said, “I understand you are very active in Benicia, and we need you here.” I told him my dance card is full right now, but I promised I would sometime in the future.

What drives you to promote business and tourism in Benicia? I enjoy working with people within the community, with business people. I really enjoy Benicia itself. I do have a little bit of history here. I’m constantly learning, and I find it fascinating. …  I enjoy it, I really do. It keeps my mind off other things, the MS.

How did you come to terms with your diagnosis? I had difficulty accepting it. I was thinking, “There’s been a mistake. It can’t be.” I put off taking medication for a long time, until 2008. I accepted it before then, but I didn’t want to give myself a shot every day. I didn’t know what it was going to do to my body, what was going to happen. But it’s so simple and easy. And the medication is working. …

It comes and goes. I walk with a cane once in awhile.  But I don’t want anybody’s pity.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing everything you do? Finding time to rest, the opportunity to rest. That’s difficult for me. If I overdo it, and I tend to do that, I can be in bed for the entire weekend.

What do you enjoy doing in your time off? My greatest passion outside of work is gardening, and we have three dogs: a Chihuahua, a beagle and a dachshund. I’m also a fanatic about the holidays. Our house is decorated from Halloween through Christmas.

What’s next for you? Once my husband retires, I want to travel the United States. I’ve traveled more internationally than domestically – well, except for Disneyland. I just love Disneyland.

And then, of course, I’d like to go back to Open Government in terms of city involvement.