MANCHESTER — The Shires Regional Marketing Organization has tentatively selected a facilitator to help them plan for an upcoming "summit meeting" to give direction and propose ideas for marketing and promoting the Northshire and the rest of Bennington County.
In the wake of the collapse of the former Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce in April, the Shires RMO has stepped forward to assist Manchester businesses with their marketing and visitor promotional efforts while some new structure — as yet undetermined — takes shape.
No date has yet been set for the summit meeting, although a mixer similar to one held a few weeks ago at the Southern Vermont Arts Center is planned for Aug. 17 at the Arlington Inn, said Jonah Spivak, the chairman of the Shires RMO's board of directors. What RMO officials and others — which includes many local businesses and also the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce — hope to learn from the summit is the direction the interested parties want to see emerge. That could be a regionwide single chamber, or do nothing and leave things as they are, or anything in between, he said.
"We need to come up with the vision first and then sell that to the whole community," he said. "There is a process to this kind of change and it always takes longer than I personally would like, and it's probably a very difficult thing to hurry, primarily because the stakes are high and we want to get it right."
Prior to the dissolution of the local chamber of commerce, the Shires RMO, originally founded in the early 1990s and rebranded 10 years ago out of a region-wide marketing effort led by Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home, had seen its role as collaborating with both the Manchester-based and Bennington-based chambers. But its board of directors saw a need to step forward more pro-actively after the Manchester Chamber filed for bankruptcy last April, and helped set up tourist information kiosks at the Main Street branch of the Berkshire Bank and across the street at the TPW Real Estate offices to serve visitors during the weekends when the bank was closed.
Three months after the former Manchester chamber closed its doors, no formal entity has yet emerged to serve as an equivalent umbrella or coordinating organization.
Whether this status quo is going to be adequate if no consensus can be reached about whether to dissolve the existing Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and recreate it as a regional chamber that includes the entire county, or some other alternative are at the top of the list of issues both the Shires and Bennington chamber officials are interested to hash over with Manchester area businesses, Spivak said.
"The important message is that the Shires and Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce are willing to look at all ideas at this stage," he said. "One could be the Bennington chamber reforming with Manchester as a co-equal — that's one possibility. We're not suggesting that at this point but we know the chamber model is in transition."
If it were to come to be that a regional chamber was eventually seen as the most effective path forward, it would be one of the largest chambers in the state, and could wield proportional influence, he added.
These were some of the questions also discussed at a social mixer held two weeks ago at the Southern Vermont Arts Center, although communication glitches contributed to limiting the number of Manchester business owners who attended. Several of those who did attend and speak noted the need for a more coherent communication system for getting the word out, a point Spivak said they fully grasped going forward.
Robin Ryan, a Realtor and sales associate at Four Seasons/Sotheby's International Realty, attended the mixer at SVAC and came away from it seeing the Shires RMO as being willing to partner with local Manchester businesses but were not going to force a particular solution and was waiting for a sense of direction.
In her view, the Shires RMO, however well-intentioned, can't fully replace the former chamber and its tourism promotion efforts, she said.
"I think the Shires is one thing but they can't replace the chamber," she said. "We're going to have to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We can partner with the Shires and all that but somewhere along the line we've got to create something."
Some sort of grassroots effort, led by a group of local visionaries, is what would serve the area best, and it would ideally center on Manchester and the surrounding towns, she said.
Linda Benway, a co-owner of the Casablanca Motel recently joined the Shires board of directors, seeing the RMO as the one organization that was stepping forward to fill the vacuum created when the Manchester chamber dissolved. Not only was it instrumental in getting the two visitor information kiosks set up, but also ensured the appropriate permits were obtained to enable the town's annual sidewalk sale, planned for August, to go forward, she said.
"No other group has emerged to move any initiative forward to promote tourism in Manchester," she said. "I think that the Shires RMO is in a position to help Manchester get to that next step what ever that will be, and that next step has to be up to the Manchester businesspeople."
All of which makes the mixer planned for the Arlington Inn on Aug. 17, and another mixer scheduled by the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, July 20, at the Bennington Project Independence on Route 7A — and to which Manchester business owners and former chamber members have been invited — timely and important in the lead up to the larger "summit" meeting, Benway said.
"There's all different models and we as a community have to start the talks on what we think is a good model for our area and what we want to see."