It may well be that the Manchester "brand" — to borrow from "marketing-speak" — is well enough established that the area can coast for a little while on previous investments made in building that.
But, it's a little unnerving to be on the threshold of the crucial summer tourist season and not have a locally based central office set up to dispense information to would-be travelers and those already there. Efforts are underway by the Shires Regional Marketing Organization, the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Manchester's own marketing program to steer traffic in this direction. Those initiatives are all to be welcomed. So are whatever efforts individual businesses are adding to the mix. Hopefully the end result, at least until a new chamber of commerce is formed won't lead to a decline in the number of visitors, because this year, in this economy, every visitor and every dollar is going to count.
The regional chamber being discussed with the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce is a great idea and we applaud the leaders of that chamber for stepping forward, extending a helping hand, and helping out with answering the phones and updating the website. It may well have been that the former Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce would have merged with the Bennington Area chamber anyway. It would have been better to do that in a planned, thought-out fashion, but instead, it has come in a more hurried and unexpected way.
At a minimum, we think that in a more perfect world, Manchester would have its own clearly marked, easy-to-find visitors center. We applaud also the Berkshire Bank and TPW Real estate for offering space in their offices to fill the gap. Longer term, another solution might be desirable. This could be a local satellite visitors center adjunct to the new regional chamber which may (or may not) emerge down the road, or something more local in origin. The point is to have some tangible entity helping out both on- and offline.
We'd also like to encourage town leaders to consider taking a more urgent, aggressive approach to the short-term fix the town and surrounding area have with regard to its visitor information problem. The map and software app discussed last a recent Manchester Select Board meeting wasn't the complete solution, but it was a piece of the puzzle. Spending $2,000 to take a lead position on the proposed map should not have been a hard call. When you consider how much revenue the town banks on from local option taxes primarily paid by visitors, $2,000 is a sum that's close to peanuts. We understand it may not be a role the town wants to play and that every $2,000 spent adds up. But the town already has a marketing program in theory it can draw from. That would seem to neutralize that issue. And once a new chamber and a new visitor's center is in place, complete with website and social media wizards to bombard visitors with automated text messages and Facebook feeds, it can step back from that role. Of course, the business community needs to carry its own weight. But sometimes special times demand special responses. Think of it like an updated stimulus package. This may not be 2009, but why take chances when so much revenue is at stake?
We agree with Select Board members who want to see independent organizations like a chamber of commerce not get in the habit of seeking a bailout when things go awry. And long-term that will no doubt be fixed. This is more like bridging the gap, and has a wider ripple effect, given the importance of tourism and visitor spending to Manchester's economy,
And as the new chamber evolves, if that is what is to be, hopefully the issues that plagued the former and now-defunct chamber will be addressed.
We'll encourage the regional concept with the Bennington-based chamber, realizing that there are differences between the two ends of the county but also overlapping reasons to work together for mutual benefit. Deliberate speed is called for, but the sooner something tangible is in place, the better. And just as Bennington has a great art museum and its array of attractions, so does Manchester and the mountain towns. Neither should get lost in the shuffle.