MANCHESTER >> A reconsideration of a vote seeking $25,000 in public funds for marketing and economic development efforts which failed by a narrow 5 vote margin during town meeting voting will be sought by the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of commerce.
The business organization, which is transitioning into a new entity to be known as The Partnership, sought the money as part of a $75,000 package of public funds from 16 communities across the Northshire region, to help fund an initiative that its supporters feel would boost the region's economy through a combined economic development and regional marketing strategy, said Seth Bongartz, the president of Hildene, the Lincoln Family home, Bongartz served as one of the facilitators of a 16 month-long effort undertaken by the chamber to re-think its mission as circumstances facing the chamber of commerce and its membership have evolved.
"We all talk about a lack of opportunity for young people and it comes down to are we really just going to continue to talk about it or are we actually going to do something about it," he said. "One of the things that didn't come across is that this is really about economic development and opportunity — it isn't just another marketing initiative."
The Partnership aims to use the public funds to supplement money raised from private sector sources to advance two main objectives. One would be to assist local entrepreneurs start up and grow businesses, as well as assess the inherent strengths of the area should businesses and entrepreneurs from outside the immediate area inquire about how they might expand locally. A second prong of the Partnership envisions a more robust presence at trade and travel shows than has been possible to date, to encourage tourism, travel and increasingly group tours and convention business, as Manchester's lodging profile changes with the arrival of one new recently completed hotel, The Taconic, a change of ownership at the Equinox Resort, and the anticipated arrival of a Hampton Inn and Suites next year, said Berta Maginniss, the executive director of the current chamber of commerce.
"That's a side of our business that's not coming here right now," she said, adding that with all the new development underway or being discussed, there are "eyes on Manchester" currently that could translate into significant investment and job opportunities.
The Partnership was successful in 12 of the 16 towns it sought funding from. In addition to Manchester, where the vote failed by a 631-626 margin, the initiative got a thumbs down in Sunderland by a 20-17 margin on a floor vote; lost by a 373-279 margin in Arlington by Australian ballot; and also lost in the town of Stratton. But elsewhere, the initiative won approval during town meeting voting.
For now, the chamber's leadership will focus on reversing the outcome of the vote in Manchester, and try to revisit the other towns next year assuming the re-vote, which is tentatively being planned for early May, is successful. The chamber will also pay for the cost of the re-vote, estimated to be about $4,000, Bongartz said.
In order to force a re-vote, the Partnership has to successfully circulate a petition containing signatures from 5 percent of the town's checklist, or about 185 registered Manchester voters, within 30 days of town meeting. The close defeat, by a scant 5 votes, was disappointing, Maginniss said.
An analysis of the voting on March 1 showed that the Partnership received a comparable number of "no" votes — 626 — to those received by the Manchester Community Library, which was seeking $207,900 to support its operating budget. The library's request passed by 784-609 margin, which indicated many people chose not to cast a vote on the Partnership article, even though they went to the polls and voted on other issues, Maginniss said.
"That said to us that we had done a less than stellar job at educating the voters," she said. "You don't vote for something you don't know about."
In towns where they had been able to go out and make presentations and spread the word, Bongartz said they had done fairly well, except for Stratton. In Dorset, the item was incorporated into the overall budget request.
However, until the situation with Manchester is determined, the chamber/partnership will not accept the money approved by the other towns, which was based on a combination of population, grand list and other economic factors. The amounts varied from $6,300 sought from Dorset to $2,000 sought from towns like Peru, Sunderland, Weston, Sandgate and Rupert. Winhall said yes to $4,200 and Londonderry agreed to $4,800.
Plans for a second attempt at getting $25,000 from Manchester did not gain traction with Bradley Myerson, a local attorney who opposed the initiative the first time around and who saw no reason to change his opinion on it, calling it "corporate welfare."
"It should be up the merchants to fund any kind of regional marketing request," he said. "It doesn't benefit the average citizen one bit."
Neither would it directly benefit Manchester or its taxpayers, he said. In any event, such benefits were impossible to accurately gauge and measure, he said. A better solution would be to give 25 small businesses $1,000 each for their marketing and let them deploy it in ways they thought might best boost their individual businesses, he added.
One reason for supporting the Partnership's initiative is to ensure that most of a series of recommendations contained in a recently released study of the Northshire's economy — the Northshire Economic Development Strategy or NEDS — were conditioned on having a regionally oriented agency like The Partnership be the vehicle responsible for carrying them out, said Pauline Moore, Manchester's economic development officer. Without such an organization, the report, for which Manchester, Dorset and Manchester Village contributed funds towards, could well suffer the familiar fate of reports that lead to little follow up action, she said.
The mechanism also brings the towns into an effective "partnership" with the business organization, she said.
"What's important is that the chamber recognizes that the towns will now become partners in what goes on — they will have a voice in what the chamber does and that the chamber just won't take the money and not include them in what goes on," she said.
The economic development strategy favored in the NEDS report relies on a concept known as "economic gardening," where already existing local assets get primacy in terms of help and assistance over luring companies and businesses from out of the area to relocate here. Helping local entrepreneurs and start-ups who are already in place and part of existing clusters of businesses — food production being one example — would be a central focus of the Partnership's economic development efforts, along with developing an inventory of local physical sites where such businesses, ranging from service industries to small manufacturing, might be able to grow and expand.
The time is right to make this kind of effort, Bongartz said.
"We think this is such an opportunity, and we've come so far with it," he said, referring to the 16 months of focus groups, discussions and planning done by local business and chamber of commerce leaders. "We won't be able to replicate this moment again. If we can get Manchester to come in, (it) will send a signal that we mean it."