Editorial: Important role for chambers of commerce


Published: 5/10/2018 7:17:25 PM

We commend volunteer members of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce who will lend an extra hand during the coming months as the organization goes without full-time paid staff.

Peter Vickery, president of the Chamber, last month announced the decision to save money so it can make a more competitive offer when the time comes to again hire a paid executive director. The Chamber’s last two full-time executive directors each left after a short stay.

Now, only a part-time bookkeeper remains on the Chamber’s paid staff. Vickery said he is comfortable with turning over other responsibilities to volunteers drawn from the Chamber’s 300 members because they are its greatest resource.

“They’re already in charge of all of our events,” Vickery said. “Now our member-volunteers will also help with administration and operations.”

At the same time, Vickery, a lawyer, said he already is laying the groundwork to eventually advertise for a new executive director. “It takes a while to do it right. We want to make sure we do an effective search,” he said. “We don’t want to be all-volunteer forever.”

We agree that while relying on volunteers is a reasonable stopgap measure, the Chamber needs full-time paid staff to be an effective voice for its members, work with other organizations such as the Amherst Business Improvement District to advocate for a vibrant downtown and set an annual legislative agenda.

According to Vickery, the Amherst Chamber has seen its membership drop from 800 in the early 2000s to about 300 this year. Vickery attributed the decline to online resources that provide information about businesses.

Still, chambers of commerce provide important services — particularly face-to-face networking for members and sponsoring local community events — that the internet cannot duplicate.

The Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce has between 625 and 650 businesses and nonprofits that are dues-paying members. Its executive director, Suzanne Beck, said the members appreciate the role played by the Chamber in advocating for the vitality of the city’s downtown.

“Our real draw is we’re so focused on the well-being of the community as a whole,” she said. “The notion of collective benefit is being able to accomplish something you can’t do on your own.”

At the same time, the Northampton Chamber sponsors Arrive at Five after-work networking opportunities for its members. Beck said typically 125 to 150 people attend those gatherings to share stories and ideas.

The Amherst Chamber sponsors similar events, called After 5, which will continue during this transition period, as will the popular Taste of Amherst from June 14 to 17, which this year will be administered by the Amherst Business Improvement District.

Smaller organizations, such as the South Hadley-Granby Chamber of Commerce, offer other incentives to keep its members engaged. That organization has seen growth in its active membership of 70 to 75 businesses by offering member-to-member discounts. Those help to offset the membership fees that range from $105 to $500, depending on the size and type of business.

Michelle Theroux, president of the South Hadley-Granby Chamber, said other benefits to members include training opportunities in collaboration with groups in Holyoke and Chicopee.

In Amherst, a typical retail business or restaurant pays between $300 and $400 in annual fees to join the Chamber. Vickery now admits that he was overly optimistic in predicting that he could double its membership within a year after he took over the presidency in January.

Now, as volunteers drawn from its membership help keep the Chamber operating during the next several months, Vickery and other members of its board of directors are faced with the critical task of determining the qualities needed in the next executive director to provide stable leadership.

Since Tony Maroulis, who served as executive director for six years, left in 2014 to become director of community relations at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, two men came and went from the Chamber’s permanent top job. And Jerry Guidera, an Amherst businessman who had been the part-time interim executive director since last August, stepped down from that role in April.

The next executive director will play an important role in guiding the long-term vision and planning for the business community, especially as Amherst adapts to its new Town Council form of government. We are confident that with effective leadership the Chamber will continue to have a strong voice as part of the town’s key decision-makers.

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