Select board debates marketing post-chamber of Commerce

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MANCHESTER >> It may not be a full-blown visitor's center, but for now it's the next best thing available.

A large brochure rack and information kiosk has been set up inside the lobby of the Berkshire Bank's Main Street branch office, one stop-gap measure being tried to help visitors navigate their way through town and the area in the coming weeks and months while a longer term solution to the loss of the town's visitor's center is developed.

A similar kiosk will be in place at the TPW real estate office across the street, which will be open on weekends when the bank branch is typically closed, Pauline Moore, the town's economic development officer, told members of the Select Board and those attending Tuesday's select board meeting at Town Hall.

"It's formed a nice area for visitors to get information and the bank has agreed that one of their people will always be there to answer questions," Moore said, stressing that it was a temporary measure.

The Shires Regional Marketing Organization, which is in discussions with the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce about possibly forming a broader regional chamber of commerce which would cover all of Bennington County, helped install the kiosks, she said.

During her presentation, Moore updated the select board on the discussions already held and planned for between the Shires RMO and the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, noting that those discussions wouldn't preclude towns such as Manchester from doing their own specific marketing.

"In doing all of this, we realize we still have to keep marketing ourselves," she said.

One of those efforts includes setting up a software app that visitors could access on their smartphones or other mobile devices by a Rutland-based firm got2web.com, which is also offering to produce 20,000 maps of Manchester that local businesses could advertise on. Moore suggested to the board the town might want to consider taking the front page of the map at a cost of $2,000 to help push the initiative along, using funds from the town's exisitng marketing program approved by voters during March Town Meeting.

"It would give us something for the town in the short term while we figure out what to do next," she said.

Under the terms of that program, public money is only released dollar-for-dollar when matched by private sector funds from local businesses.

But Moore's suggestion ran into a cool reception from several members of the select board, who questioned whether this was a proper role for the town's government to be playing. The two issues — whether to earmark $2,000 for the map advertisement and where the town should stand in relation to the possible formation of a new, county-wide regional chamber, often became intertwined in the ensuing discussion.

Ivan Beattie, the select board chairman, asked Moore what had changed to entice businesses who found little reason to become members of the former 17-town Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce to find value in a newer regional chamber.

"I like the idea of some entity being the umbrella for the various towns, (but) .... it's still going to be membership-driven and doing the same kinds of things that our (former) chamber was doing," he said. "Why would people become members of this new organization when they wouldn't before?"

"We don't have all the answers," Moore replied. "What we're looking at is forming a committee of a couple of people from Manchester and Bennington and from the Shires and figure out what was it that the chamber wasn't doing, and I think the main thing we know the chamber wasn't doing is that it had not convinced the businesses what it was doing for them and asked them what they wanted."

Select board vice chairman Wayne Bell then added his concerns.

"It sounds like the chamber has morphed into the Shires — I don't think that we should be the chamber," Bell said. "I don't think we should be leading this and yet that's what it sounds like — the chamber isn't doing this so we going to put up these and the chamber isn't doing that so we're going to make a map and we may not be the chamber but we're going to look and smell and spend money just like a chamber."

Mooore said her biggest concern was that when the summer tourist season arrived in a few weeks with Memorial Day weekend, visitors would have difficulty obtaining information comparable to that formerly provided at the chamber's former visitor's center.

"For the short term between now and fall foliage, we need to do something and The Shires has stepped up to take this on," she said. "We still need to be Manchester and look after our own town and people — we're not going to do marketing — that's not what we ever wanted to do or should be doing."

The discussion veered back to the map question with select board member Carol Lattuga pointing out that previous attempts at paper maps had been less-than-successful.

Beattie said he wasn't criticizing anything that was happening and said there needed to be both local and regional marketing going on to draw visitors to the town and area.

Town manager John O'Keefe said he and Moore had discussed putting together a small group to discuss the various pieces involved, including the idea of a special downtown designation or an organization which could lead to certain state incentives.

"I think it may be time to get a larger discussion about the downtown designation that might be specific to marketing the town," he said. "There are a lot of different options."

But Beattie struck a skeptical note as the discussion ended.

"I'm still not convinced that the municipality or the government is the best entity to be performing this function," he said, referring to tax-based function such as a special downtown tax assessment district. "It may have to be done out of necessity. The difficulty I have with that is that if we're going to perform the same function that was being performed previously, and it wasn't important enough to the members to maintain the membership, I don't want 'Big Brother' to step in and force people to become members of an organization that is not important to them. We have to be very careful we're not just stepping in as government over a failed idea and perpetuating it and forcing everyone to participate, which we have the authority and power to do."

In the end, the select board took no action, pro or con, on the request for earmarking the $2,000 for the front page ad on the map.


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