MANCHESTER — When it comes to chambers of commerce, the regional idea is old news.
Of the 41 separate chambers of commerce listed on the membership page of the statewide Vermont Chamber of Commerce website, all but a handful have names indicating a regional or "area" reach. Names of the chambers in towns such as Hardwick and Island Pond suggest a tighter focus, but they are in a distinct minority.
As the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and the Shires Regional Marketing Organization — and the latter organization is now listed on the state chamber's website as its contact for Manchester Center — begin discussions which may or may not lead to the creation of a new regional chamber of commerce for Bennington County and some of the nearby mountain towns, the regional concept by itself won't be breaking much new ground. Finding the proper balance between the two halves of the county may be a matter to sort out, but the idea of a county or region-wide structure is a time-tested one.
Such groupings are smart and make sense, said Marji Graf, the executive director of the Okemo Valley Chamber of Commerce, which is based in Ludlow and covers the towns of Andover, Cavendish, Chester, Grafton, Londonderry, Mount Holly, Ludlow, Plymouth, Weston as well as other surrounding communities.
"I think we need to start marketing Vermont with northern, central and south — unfortunately here we are kind of in south-central," she said with a laugh. "It's a good idea to market regionally and to use the skills of all the members."
Graf is also currently the president of the Vermont Association of Chamber Executives, and the recent closure of the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce got their attention. "Shocked" was one term she used to describe her reaction in a recent phone interview.
She was not alone.
Susan Hoxie, the executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, which started as the Middlebury Chamber of Commerce before adding Bristol and Vergennes, said the news about last month's closing of the Manchester-based chamber has affected nearly every member of in the state. The issues that undermined the local chamber here — declining numbers of dues-paying members and the loss of revenue from providing low-cost health insurance policies — were being faced by other chambers as well. Focusing closely on their members needs has helped get them through, she said.
"We need to better articulate our services and provide programs and benefits our members find value in," she said in a recent interview conducted shortly after the Manchester chamber closed on April 15. Part of it may be a reflection of a demographic shift, she added — more of the younger cohort of business owners and entrepreneurs may not have the same feeling of needing to belong to the local chamber that earlier generations did. And at least in Middlebury, her experience has been that the national-brand chain stores there aren't as likely to be members as their locally grown counterparts.
The regional model is one that works in this changing environment, but it's also important to recognize that each community is different and unique — "I have to be conscious of serving the whole communities," she said.
Directors of the now-defunct Manchester regional chamber saw the changing trends coming, and upgrading the town's visitor's center was an attempt to reverse the declining trend of membership, said Joseph Wagner, who served on the chamber's board of directors for seven years and was the board's president in 2011-12.
But the gamble didn't work. The visitor's center was a hit with local members as well as tourists, but it didn't translate into the kind of increase in membership they were hoping for, and needed, given the loss of revenue from the health insurance business, he said.
"We saw a swift and sudden reduction in membership," Wagner said of the loss of revenue from their health insurance offerings following the arrival of the Vermont Health Exchange in 2013. "People couldn't see enough value in the membership to pay the dues — that's the bottom line of it."
The re-think of the chamber led into The Partnership — a public-private entity which floundered over the defeat of the request for $25,000 in public money from Manchester during Town Meeting and which was intended to help leverage more private funds. Although by then money was tight and the public funds, if approved, would not have been available until July and the start of a new fiscal year, he felt they could have hung on with the help of credit lines from banks (this was the same route the Okemo Valley Chamber took when the health insurance "tsunami" hit them, according to Marji Graf). But the failed vote eventually persuaded them, after an initial thought of trying for a re-vote, that The Partnership just wasn't going to work, Wagner said.
"We should have gone to the town and said if we don't do something, the chamber will not continue to exist," he said. "But the board felt that if they created any doubt in the mind of the public in the sustainability of the chamber, it would increase the problem. It was an awkward situation."
In the wake of that, the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and the Shires Regional Marketing Organization have held a discussion and are planning another "summit meeting" in June to see if a regional chamber might work for both ends of the county. Such an idea is worth looking at, said Ron Mancini, a local businessman who had expressed concerns about the former chamber's direction in the wake of Town Meeting.
"My takeaway is that the Shires and the Bennington chamber wanting to step in and help Manchester is a good thing, especially since the loss of the chamber is felt most particularly by the hospitality industry, more than any other sector," he said. "Tourism is our principle industry, and there needs to be some way to have a welcoming platform for new and returning visitors."
Such an alliance would be a useful step in the short term, buying time to explore longer term needs, he said.
At the same time, it's important to address marketing Manchester itself, which was a concern of his before the chamber folded.
Mancini had expressed concerns earlier that the previous chamber had failed to focus on Manchester as the region's principle economic engine, and the regionalized approach of the recent past had left its core constituents — Manchester businesses — feeling disenfranchised. More emphasis on those businesses as the driving wheel of the area's economic base was needed. A strong economy in Manchester was the surest way to a strong regional economy, he said.
Mancini has helped spearhead an initiative in its third year which matches public money — up to $25,000 — with private sector donations, and that has helped fill the void in the past three years, he said. The marketing efforts funded by the combination of public and private money will be increasingly used to help point potential visitors to a relatively new website, manchestervermont,com, to draw them here.
"The key to all of this is that Manchester has already taken steps to market itself by setting aside money and is now pursuing that which will compliment the Shires/Bennington chamber initiative," he said.
Other ideas, like pushing for an official designation of the downtown core by the state might be another approach to consider, he said.
The Agency for Commerce and Community Development runs this program, which is designed to boost local revitalization efforts through an array of tax credits and grants. Included among them is a program which allows for the creation of a special assessment district as well, to raise funds for downtown and business improvements.
But for now, the Shires and Bennington project was a good start, he said.
Other ideas under discussion include a new town app for smartphones and mobile devices to help shoppers and visitors meet their needs.
Whatever may emerge in the wake of the demise of the former chamber and the arrival of a potential new regional chamber which would span the entire county, it's critical Manchester should have some clear means of informing visitors about what's going on and available right here, some area business owners have said.
"We need a new chamber — we don't need something new," said Clark Comollo, the co-owner of Comollo Antiques. Getting a visitor's center back up and running which didn't cost as much to run as the now-closed one on Bonnet Street was one thing that would help. So would a better website, he added.
The idea of a special assessment district, which would draw in revenue from the national outlet stores, was an intriguing one.
"We can parlay with the Bennington chamber, but that's a different conversation," he said. "We're the big gun in southern Vermont — the idea that we don't have a chamber is absolutely ludicrous — the amount of money that is riding on this is phenomenal. It's not the end of the world, but we need a chamber here."