The handwriting was on the wall last month when it came to the survival of the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce, but it was still something of a shock when the announcement was made earlier this week that after more than 75 years, the Chamber was going out of business.
Looking backwards, there are many yet-to-be fully answered questions. How could things have reached this point without red flags going off? Such flags, of course, were fluttering, and that is what led to the series of focus groups that eventually led to The Partnership. But neither was it clear this was a do-or-die proposition.
The Visitors Center was a success in terms of being an attractive and effective place to direct visitors from, but with its membership steadily shrinking, it wasn't affordable. All of which is easy to see in hindsight, but as anyone who has ever been involved with or charged with turning around an entity from crisis to stability, private sector or otherwise, sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees when you're in the middle of the woods, and emotionally attached to the journey.
People who get tapped to serve on boards of directors for small local organizations like the chamber of commerce usually do so out of a sense of civic responsibility and a desire to do good. They volunteer their time and don't get paid. Presumably they may find it useful to meet other like-minded people, grow networks, and take their compensation in non-monetary ways. The folks who sat around the board room at the chamber's offices were, and are, good people with the best intentions. But change today is a relentless, accelerating process, just like in the news business, to cite one familiar example. It's easy to confuse creative destruction with destructive creation.
The former Chamber's demise is partly a function of a rapidly changing travel and tourism market. Social media and smartphones have had a huge effect on how people shop and travel in a remarkably short period of time. Should that have received more emphasis? In hindsight, yes. More critically, should the chamber as an organization been more focused on learning more about why members were leaving and conducting "exit interviews" on why they didn't see membership as a worthy investment? No question. Should it have been a priority to entice those who left to return to the fold? Of course — if only to inform what it is local merchants want and are willing to pay dues for. Was that beyond the reach of a possibly overstretched board and staff? Possibly. Most board members are busy people with enterprises of their own to run. The survey the chamber conducted in its final weeks may offer some hints. It's a conversation worth continuing across more than one forum, though, because ultimately, that's what it comes down to — what are members willing to pay to host a central source of information and promotion about their business. What sort of benefit flows from such an entity in terms of business promotion and assistance that individual entrepreneurs can't do on their own?
A chamber of commerce could, in theory, be much more than that. In many other communities, it's an advocate for business, large and small. While we supported the now moribund idea that was to be The Partnership, which the chamber was hoping to evolve into, one question was the conflict of interest the organization, had it gotten off the ground, would have had advocating for business when one of its major financial backers were town governments. How could a chamber have pushed for the right to allow "open flags," for instance, when town officials might frown on them?
Right now, it's more important to look forward, and see what takes the former chamber's place. It's hard to imagine Manchester, where travel and tourism spending are so central to the town and the region's prosperity — to say nothing of all that local option tax revenue the town counts on — not replacing the chamber with something.
There have been no shortage of intriguing ideas floated, on social media platforms and in coffeeshops alike. The central issues seem to rotate around to what a new entity, or office, should be for, at the start at least,
The larger ideas around economic development will have to wait for another day. Right now, we mainly need a functioning Visitor's Center. Perhaps the existing building could be sub-divided into a space where a receptionist hands out brochures and information only. The idea of a "downtown designation" which would create a special tax district that all businesses would pay into to support promotional efforts is intriguing also, and worth more exploration.
And while we understand there are many who feel what comes next should build itself around Manchester, and such a special tax district, or other public money raised in Manchester should stay in Manchester, that's ultimately not going to be enough. People travel here, we'll venture to think, because there's a lot to do in town and out-of-town. Why not leverage all the assets? Of course, all who potentially benefit what comes next need to support it. But the area is more than the sum of its parts. Rebuilding will take time, and it's important to start somewhere and perhaps start small, but neither does the baby have to be thrown out with the bathwater. A regional approach is a winning strategy and the two things — Manchester-centric or regional — don't have to be mutually exclusive.
It's time for a hearty, full-throated, and civic and respectable discussion about this. There has been some great dialogue on social media and some good ideas floated. Some sort of forum to bring all the interested parties together would seem an obvious next step. We have to work together. There is much to do, and not much time. For whatever else its faults and flaws might have been, the Chamber served a vital role in boosting the town's prosperity, and it is ironic that just as some exciting new developments are underway — new hotels, upgraded Rec Park, new library, Depot Street overhaul and several fascinating new businesses opened — the chamber goes under. Something needs to fill the void.