To say that it's been an interesting couple of days for our local and regional chamber of commerce would qualify as one of the larger understatements of the still-young year.
Last Friday came the astonishing news that the chamber was too financially stressed by declines in memberships and an inability to recover from losing a revenue stream tied to offering discounted rates on health insurance to continue in operation. Then on Monday came word that reports of its demise were premature. Tuesday brought more clarifications and assurances that yes, there will be functioning Visitor's Center, and other events and publications would go forward as planned, but the picture being drawn seemed to be one of an organization struggling to hang in there while a truly sustainable long-term entity could be forged.
The sound of dropping jaws may have ceased for the moment, but we all have work to do to help reinvigorate an organization that was in need of a clearer mission statement and purpose. That was to have been The Partnership, a sound idea the chamber was unable to sell effectively. The alternative — no chamber of commerce at all or something very much like — is not an option.
Manchester has had some sort of organization that promotes tourism or assists visitors since 1901. Many things have changed since then, but the need for some sort of visitor's or welcome center to help travelers on their way is not one of them. Too much of the town's and area's economy is too closely tied to travel and tourism directly and indirectly to make the option of not having some sort of viable functioning visitors center to promote area businesses and attractions seem ridiculous.
But what sort of organization should this now be? There were no shortage of good ideas offered at Tuesday's Select Board meeting, where a wide variety of thoughts were shared in a civil fashion that showed off local small town politics in its best light. Now the question is where do we go from here.
There's always been a bit of a tension between the two ostensible roles of the Chamber here, where promoting travel to our town and region, along with the services and attractions that make that into the dynamic sector that it is, and the broader role of economic development that other chambers in other places might see as a major role. Should it be the job of the Chamber, or Partnership, or whatever we wish to call it, to go out and attract new businesses to locate here? Should it be the job of the Chamber to show up at Select Board, Planning Commission or Development Review Board meetings and support members who might wish to expand a business and need a variance? Should it be their job to weigh in on controversial questions like Open flags, or go the extra mile for the smaller, independent mom and pops?
Maybe. Or maybe it should focus on the less contentious tourism promotion piece, stage and sponsor nifty events like the annual Car Show and the Concerts on the Green and publish travel guides, getting the word out that Manchester and the Mountains is the place you want to be when you have a chance to get away for a weekend or longer.
Our suggestion for now is that keeping the Visitors Center going is the top priority, and if that means dipping into the public till for some short-term bridge loan-style revenue, then that is money well spent. Fourteen thousand visitors, the number who reportedly set foot inside its door last year, can't all be wrong. Perhaps some of the $25,000 voters approved at Town Meeting to market the town could be re-directed here. It's hard to think of a better way to not market Manchester than to have a closed Visitor's Center.
As several said Tuesday night, this problem is an opportunity to re-think the mission and purpose of the Chamber or whatever successor organization comes in its wake. Clearly no organization that loses 50 percent of its members in less than a decade can be said to be in sync with itself, although finding a common ground amidst a variety of members across retailing, lodging, dining and service industries — along with a little manufacturing — is no simple task. So maybe step one is a survey distributed to all members and former members, asking just what it is they want or expect for their dues money.
The responses will no doubt be conflicting and in some cases contradictory, but should broadly give an idea of where the organization should go.
There is much to go and grow to. The recently completed NEDS study on the economic outlook of Manchester and Dorset offers much ground to plow in terms of workforce housing and development, and helping young and new entrepreneurs on their feet to successfully launch startup businesses. Locally grown startups, it seems to us, are the surest route to a solid economic base. These are businesses with roots in and ties to the area, who can nimbly innovate and escalate in scale. And there's no reason why these startups couldn't span the range from high-tech to low tech, with the proper help and assistance. It would be a great shame if the recommendations of the NEDS study do wind up being another report which gathers dust on the shelf, because the document points the way to an exciting and prosperous future for the area.
We're also fans of the regional concept which also got a fascinating airing Tuesday from both sides. Yes, Manchester is the hub from which the spokes go out. It's the main attraction and the "brand." But its more than shopping and lodging that draws people here, and hopefully, that synergy isn't lost as we move forward. Growing the region should be a win-win-win — for Manchester, outlying towns and the people who come here to unwind or do business. We all need each other.
It's remarkable that just as Manchester and the region is seeing a new blossoming of investment — most visibly in the three new hotels under way or already here, with the Depot Street overhaul and new playing fields at the Rec Park close behind — that the centerpiece of the business community has had a stumble. But the momentum of this new investment should not be halted. It's time to take a deep breath, think about what we want and what is achievable in the short term, and move on. Economic development can wait. We have a town office for that. First things first — a functioning, professional Visitor's Center.