MANCHESTER — The Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce will remain open for now, staffed by volunteers, while a longer term solution is sorted out.
Two area lawyers, Arthur O'Dea and Amy Klingler, addressed an overflow crowd of more than 70 area residents, many of them area businesspeople who filled the Kilburn Meeting Room at Manchester's Town Hall Tuesday to learn more about the status of the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce and the steps being taken to save and salvage the organization, as well as to offer suggestions and advice.
"The communities that are served by the Chamber really need to think about how they want to move forward," said Klingler. "Going into the future, we need to know what you want to continue."
In the short term, the Chamber would still be able to host the annual car show, scheduled for June, as well as assist the Lions Club and the Make-A-Wish Foundation with the Maple Leaf Half Marathon, and publish the visitor and area guides it has helped produce. The Visitor's Center on Bonnet Street, which opened in 2012 and last year served more than 14,000 visitors will also remain open, if on more limited hours depending on the amount of volunteer staffing support, she said.
Until Friday, the Visitor's Center had been staffed by the Chamber's executive director, Berta Maginniss, a receptionist and a part-time bookkeeper.
Klingler said the Chamber's board of directors had held a meeting on Monday, and approached Donald Keelan, a CPA from Arlington, as a financial trustee, to review its financial records and get an assessment of its condition and viability. She said that there had been no evidence that she had seen so far of financial irregularities or improprieties.
The business organization abruptly closed its doors last Friday, March 18, citing revenue losses from declining memberships and an inability to continue offering discounted rates for health insurance following the arrival of state health exchanges in 2014.
Then, on Monday, the Chamber released a statement saying that would continue operations, following discussions with community members and advisors, terming the earlier closing as a "short term emergency measure."
On Tuesday, the chamber released another statement, stating that its initial announcement last Friday was driven by "an immediate concern of meeting operating expenses during a period of decreasing membership and delinquent dues."
Tuesday's statement also acknowledged the initial announcement on Friday about the Chamber's closing was "premature," but that with community support the services offered by the Chamber will continue for an interim period while options are explored.
Klingler told the audience that the Chamber had seen a more than 50 percent decline in its dues paying membership over the past eight years, falling from more than 700 to about 347, and several of those were delinquent as well.
The Chamber's board of directors was planning to meet again on Wednesday to continue its discussions on how to keep the organization afloat while it transitioned to something that would be sustainable.
Arthur O'Dea, in his remarks, likened the Chamber to a "phoenix rising from its ashes."
"I do think the chamber is now in a situation where it has to be looked over carefully," he said. "We have to take it out of the ashes and get it going again."
Ivan Beattie, the chairman of the town's Select Board, said the town wanted to help where it could, noting at the start that this was an "unusual meeting," in that the select board was addressing a non-municipal issue and that there was no direct connection between the town of Manchester and the Chamber of Commerce, an independent, nonprofit organization.
"We would like to be involved in the conversation," he said, "because in the menu of conversations that we've been looking at municipal participation could be a possibility."
The troubled situation the Chamber found itself in could also be seen as an opportunity to figure out what the organization needed to be going forward, he said.
"We would love to be part of the discussion and maybe part of the resolution," he added.
For the next 90 minutes, the audience offered advice and suggestions about issues confronting the chamber. Some noted a lack of communication, with others seeing the situation as an opportunity to overhaul the organization to make it a better fit for the town and the surrounding area.
Jamie Dufour, an area businessperson who said she was one of the former members of the Chamber, said communication was a key part of the problem and one the organization had been ineffective at. She urged that at least initially, the organization should focus on Manchester and draw in surrounding communities later on, when things stabilized.
"We have a product and a brand name and the brand is Manchester," Dufour said. "I think we have to focus on Manchester — Manchester is the reason people come here."
Others thought that maintaining a more regional orientation — the Chamber currently lists 18 towns within its service area — was important.
Dina Janis, the artistic director for the Dorset Theatre Festival and who said she was a newcomer to the Chamber's board of directors, argued that sticking with a one-town focus was not a good strategy.
"In these times we can't keep thinking in terms of individual towns," she said. "Operating with that mentality is part of the problem we are suffering from in this region — towns need to work together and think regionally."
The Chamber had sought to transform itself into a new entity to be known as "The Partnership," which hoped to attract both public and private financing to move forward into more emphasis on destination tourism marketing and economic development. While several area towns approved the Chamber's financial requests during Town Meeting voting earlier this month, voters in Manchester turned down the Chamber's request for $25,000 in public funding, which represented one-third of the $75,000 in public money being asked for. The vote failed by a scant five votes, and initially, the Chamber signalled an intent to try for a reconsideration and re-vote of the measure. Last week, however, they changed their minds on that course of action.
The Chamber, or Partnership, if the successor organization had been launched, was also intended to be a key vehicle in executing some of the findings and recommendations contained within a recently completed economic study — known as the Northshire Economic Development Strategy or NEDS — which was financed in part by the towns of Manchester, Dorset and Manchester Village. The study looked at several assets the region had going for it, like strong schools and ready access to four-season outdoor recreation, as well as problems such as a lack of affordable workforce housing and the demographic challenges of an aging population. Whether those recommendations will in fact be acted upon and how was not addressed directly during the meeting.
Wayne Granquist, a Weston resident and retired businessman who had chaired another study last year which looked at the economic circumstances of the state's southern tier of Bennington and Windham counties, told the audience that one of the main reasons why several of the mountain towns such as Weston, Londonderry and Winhall were excited about The Partnership was its focus on economic development.
"We can't ignore the fact that our region of the state — from Bennington to Brattleboro to Wilmington to here — is declining," he said. "We need to work on those subjects and work on them hard," referring to issues like workforce housing, workforce development and demographic trends.
Ron Mancini, a local business owner, and one who has helped coordinate a program that uses town funds to help market Manchester, said that he thought that both the chamber needed rebuilding and that he agreed with others who has spoken previously about the importance of a regional approach to promoting the area. But at the same time, a healthy Manchester was the best way to help surrounding towns.
"The way Manchester can contribute to a regional economy is by being an extremely strong town; it's the economic center of the region," he said. "It's also the most identifiable brand name — that would help the region."