As a past President and current member of our chamber of commerce I have long advocated for it to be a strong, effective Manchester business organization. This is why it was disappointing that, after 16 months spent revisiting its purpose, basically the outcome was a name change from The Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce to a new entity called The Partnership.
For the past 30 years this chamber, as its full name suggests, was supposed to be focusing on what The Partnership now claims it will do; regional economic development and destination marketing. With the exception of seeking taxpayer assistance from Manchester and surrounding towns, the partnership offered nothing fundamentally different and apparently the voters of Manchester, Sunderland, Arlington and Stratton agreed, along with two towns that did not bring it to the voters. All rejected the chamber's petition to help fund its transition which included hiring a regional economic development director.
Unfortunately one of the drivers for this transition to The Partnership stems from the chamber's financial difficulties. How did this happen? Some of it resulted from the chamber's years of dependency on membership dues from small businesses that had no other access to affordable health insurance. These members left when the state introduced Vermont Health Connect and they saw no other compelling reason to remain with the chamber.
But more importantly, it has been the disenfranchisement of its core constituency, the Manchester business community, that has brought on this identity and financial crisis. Until recently 70 percent of chamber membership consisted of Manchester businesses. As coordinator of Manchester's Marketing Initiative Committee, I have called on several of these small businesses and been told that they seldom get visited by a chamber representative or board member or asked about how the chamber could help with their business concerns. For many, this 30 plus year experiment with regionalism has come at their expense with a significant number losing confidence in the organization and dropping their membership. The result of not paying attention to its dues paying "customers" showed up in the voting booth where the chamber's flagship town rejected its request.
Compounding the problem has been the lack of marketing and economic development leadership from the chamber; a leadership vacuum that the town of Manchester itself stepped in to fill. Our town leaders clearly recognized this and for the past three years included money for marketing Manchester in the town budget. These marketing dollars, matched by contributions from individual Manchester businesses has fostered a practical partnership between the Manchester business community and town government. This is the partnership the chamber should have but cannot as long as it continues to remain a regional organization.
Fundamentally the chamber's failure to focus on Manchester as the region's principal economic engine is misguided. An economically strong and diverse Manchester will do more for regional prosperity than what the chamber is currently proposing. Promising to promote economic activity in villages and towns that may not want it or are unprepared for such change just doesn't make sense. Putting efforts behind building a stronger, more vital Manchester will help every surrounding town and put southern Vermont in a much better position to get the cooperation and support that some appear to be seeking from state and regional agencies.
Article 14 was rejected by Manchester voters for all the right reasons and no reconsideration should be given for a re-vote. It is time for the chamber to rethink its mission and emerge as a strong Manchester business organization, one that can generate meaningful economic partnerships with its members, its town government and its citizens for the benefit of all. I for one am ready and willing to work for that.