MANCHESTER -- On Wednesday night at the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce mixer, executive director Berta Maginniss and Vermont state Chamber of Commerce President Betsy Bishop announced a unique pilot program. From July 1, 2014 until June 30, 2015, all small businesses [with five employees or less] that join or renew their membership with the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber will also have obtain membership with the state chamber.
The additional membership with the state chamber which comes with the payment of dues for the local chamber of commerce applies whether or not local small businesses are already members of the state organization.
Maginniss said the alliance was born out of a conversation with Bishop about membership, a common topic for chamber officials.
"If you went back 20 years, everybody joined the chamber, it was the civic thing to do; it was the right thing to do," Maginniss said. "If you're in business, it was your first stop. That's changed a little bit in that everybody wants to know what's in it for me, what are the values for my business and my staff and how can I do all those things."
While the local chamber can offer benefits such as networking events, providing ways to distribute information, a business expo once a year and a legislative breakfast, membership with the state chamber can offer additional services, such as a five person lobbyist team or statewide marketing efforts.
Bishop said many large businesses that already belong to the state chamber have the same concerns as the smaller businesses. For example, in the last legislative session, the state chamber's lobbyists were working on combating paid sick leave legislation in Montpelier.
"From small businesses, we heard it was a financial hardship, [while] big businesses already offered some kind of paid sick leave," she said.
Under the newly announced plan, the conversation between small business owners and the state chamber's lobbyists can be strengthened, Bishop said.
Even if small businesses don't necessarily feel the need for a lobbyist, Maginniss said, the state chamber has many different publications that can help explain what's going on in Montpelier that could effect the business community.
While this is a new alliance in Vermont, Bishop said her counterparts in other states have similar programs in place. Both Bishop and Maginniss hope that this will promote membership.
"I'm hopeful it will help us attract some members that we don't currently have, we don't have every business in town in the chamber," Maginniss said. Bishop said they are hopeful this will work for both chambers. Many business owners are under the assumption, Bishop said, that membership in a local chamber also means state membership. Until this pilot program, that was not the case.
"This will let us strengthen our numbers, will allow the Vermont chamber to grow our membership across the state and bring more power to our lobbying team," she said. "But it also will benefit the Manchester business community."
Some of the larger businesses in the Manchester area, like Orvis, Bromley or Stratton, are members of the state chamber. However, for some small businesses, even the membership dues for the local chamber is a large amount, Maginniss said. This alliance will help both the small business owners in the area, as well as both the state and local chamber.
Even with the economic upturn following the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, where Maginniss said the Manchester chamber lost members, this area does not have a news business opening every day. This makes it hard to recoup the losses from businesses either leaving the chamber or closing. While some businesses are returning to the chamber, other are leaving. In December 2013, Maginniss said, chambers across the state could no longer sell their lower cost health insurance plans. Previously before that, a business that was a member of the chamber could also purchase health insurance. On January 1, this health care program, VACE, was discontinued following the arrival of Vermont Health Connect, the health insurance exchange set up under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Chambers of commerce were no longer able to market health insurance plans to their members, which had been an important revenue stream for them, since health insurance policies could only be purchased through the state's exchange.
Maginniss said the chamber had always been very successful with selling insurance.
"We lost comissionable income and a high percentage of members who joined just for insurance," she said. "The loss of income was substantial for our chamber."
The alliance between the state and the local chamber will add benefits that may entice members to come back, she said.
"Some numbers, chambers always have a churn. We're the sort of community that, we don't have six businesses a day coming into Manchester -- but the smaller businesses, our membership even though it's not a lot of money, in the scheme of things it can be challenging. We try to make it easy, but we don't get everybody."