MANCHESTER — Amid uncertainty over the long-term future of the organization, members and other area residents met Tuesday afternoon at the Equinox Resort to discuss charting a course forward for the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce.
For now, the Visitor's Center on Bonnet Street will remain open during regular business hours during the week, and from 10-2 p.m. on weekends, with volunteers helping staff the facility in the interim while the organization attempts to attract more members to its ranks, said Cynthia Gubb, a member of the chamber's board of directors and its executive committee.
The chamber is at a critical juncture and unsure of its future, she said, reading from a prepared statement at the start of the meeting, which drew about 60 people and lasted for more than 90 minutes,
The board was meeting almost daily, and discussing several options, she said, adding the visitor's center would be kept open, "for as long as we can."
"We don't have enough members anymore to carry out the operations of the chamber," Gubb said later in the meeting. "How do you get them and convince them of the value of it?"
Two weeks ago, the chamber announced it was ceasing its operations immediately, citing financial pressures it could no longer absorb. In a statement released Friday, March 18, it said membership had declined by more than 50 percent over the past eight years, from about 700 to 347. this, along with a loss of revenue from no longer being able to offer discounted health insurance policies to its members following the arrival of state health exchanges such as Vermont Health Connect had clouded the organization's financial picture.
But the following Monday, March 21, the chamber reversed course and decided to remain open while it sorted its options out. A meeting with the Select Board last Tuesday and a previously planned monthly mixer at the Taconic Hotel followed, as board members made a renewed effort to communicate its situation, and value, to the rest of the community.
The Chamber has struggled in recent weeks in the wake of a failed vote during Town Meeting to restructure itself as a new entity which was to have been called The Partnership. It sought $75,000 in public financing to help leverage more private sector money and investment. Voters passed appropriations from 12 of the 16 towns it approached to support The Partnership. However, a loss by 5 votes during Town Meeting in Manchester — which was being asked to supply one-third or $25,000 of the public money being sought — was a setback the initiative could not in the end overcome.
The meeting this Tuesday was billed as a public forum to draw feedback and input on what the chamber could offer to all types of area businesses and ideas for getting there.
Joy Sluzarek, the owner of Joy: All Things Underthings, urged the leadership of the Chamber to look at the "low hanging fruit," such as the importance of upgrading its online and social media presence,
"That is something that very fixable and very, very necessary," she said. "I think we have a lot of strong points — there are huge opportunities in this town."
Ed Morrow, co-founder of the Northshire Bookstore, agreed with Sluzarek about the importance of an enhanced web and social media presence, but also stressed the need to solve the immediate financial problems facing the organization. He had been unable to determine a source of funds other than memberships, but to build that meant offering prospective members a commeasurate value for their money, he said.
"Real communication takes an enormous effort," he said, urging the formation of a special committee to follow up on the ideas being offered at the meeting. "The goal should be to talk with all 7-800 business entities and learn what they want."
Kami Golembesky, who with her husband runs the Bromley View Inn and who also owns and operates Green Mountain Mylofascial Release in Manchester, said they had once been chamber members, but dropped out a few years ago because the membership didn't seem to be worth the money.
"There was nothing that was helping us grow; we weren't getting referrals for lodging guests," she said. When they did let their membership lapse, no one from the Chamber called they to ask why.
Others pointed out that while businesses focused mainly on the tourism and travel sector of the area's economy were critical to the chamber and the region, there were other businesses which were potential recruits the chamber could make a case for providing value to.
Ramsey Gourd, a local architect, urged the chamber to take a "holistic approach" to businesses in the community, such as other professional services, and not only on hospitality and retail businesses. He also thought the chamber needed to push forward on getting information more readily available to visitors via online apps accessible through smartphones, which increasingly are how potential customers were researching where to go, shop and visit.
His point about bringing in more types of businesses was echoed later on by David Van de Water, a businessman from East Arlington, who said that one of the most interesting points to him contained in the recently released Northshire Economic Development Strategy report released Feb. 11 was the amount of purchasing being done outside the area, referred to as "leakage" in the report.
"How does the Chamber act as a catalyst to get more here for the people who live here?" he asked. "I believe that will draw more people to live here. People will come here when there is a really vibrant community life."
Derek Boothby, a Manchester resident who said he was not a business owner but as a former chairman of the board of the Manchester Music Festival was deeply invested in the community's welfare, wondered if the town's governing officials could be asked to help out, perhaps with in-kind support if a direct financial infusion was not in the cards.
"It's in the town's interest to have a vital vibrant and welcoming Visitor's Center and I would urge the board of directors to get together with meeting the Select Board to see if it might be possible to get some support from the town," he said.
Chris Morrow, the owner of the Northshire Bookstore, asked members if they thought the Visitor's Center was worth the cost of $50,000 per year to keep open, in addition to salaries for staff members. However, that question was never directly addressed during the rest of the meeting.
Another idea raised near the end of the meeting by Jessica Kerner of J.K. Adams in Dorset was to create a survey and distribute it to the membership. By Wednesday afternoon, such a survey had been emailed out to members, seeking their input on what services the Chamber currently provides they would miss, what its priorities should be, and how much would they be willing to pay for memberships.
The Chamber has a four pronged strategy going forward, Gubb said in a phone interview Wednesday.
One is to continue to seek input from the community on the purpose the Chamber should serve; explore what other additional financial support it can obtain in the short term, keep the Visitor's Center open and continue to meet as a board to navigate through the crisis.
She said the board hoped to have determined a "definite pathway forward" by April 30. The Manchester Car Show, scheduled for June 11-12, will go on as scheduled.
"It's been here for 75 years," Gubb said, referring to the Chamber, "so we've been doing something right all those years. It's just a rough patch and hopefully we can find our way through it."