Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce to close


MANCHESTER >> The Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce is closing its doors.

The decision to fold the chamber's operations is effective immediately, according to a statement released by the business organization Friday.

A decline in memberships, coupled with the loss of a revenue stream from offering health insurance to its members, which disappeared with the arrival of the Affordable Care Act and state health insurance exchanges, were the main drivers of the decision, the announcement said.

Despite a falloff in membership following the 2008-09 recession, and then the loss of health insurance revenue with the coming of Vermont Health Connect, the state's health exchange, the chamber had hoped to re-invent itself as The Partnership, following a 14 month-long process of self-examination and analysis of how the chamber could provide services of value to its membership and region. The organization had sought public funding totalling $75,000 from 16 area communities, which would help leverage private funding. However, a defeat by five votes during Town Meeting voting in Manchester, which was being asked for $25,000 of the $75,000 being asked for, created a hurdle that chamber officials felt uncomfortable risking a revote on.

The chamber has been circulating petitions for a revote and had been indicating a willingness to try and reverse that outcome in a second vote which they were hoping to hold in early May.

"The responsible business decision is to cease operation and not go through with reconsideration for funds we could not in good conscience use for the immediate operational needs of the chamber," the statement said. "By making the decision now, it allows the Chamber to take care of current financial obligations and releases our loyal partners from further monetary obligation to us."

The Partnership was an attempt to bring together private and public money to support tourism destination marketing and economic development initiatives. It passed in 12 of the 16 communities where it was on the ballot, failing in Arlington, Sunderland, Stratton and Manchester. But it was the defeat by the narrow five vote margin in Manchester out of more than 1,200 votes cast that struck what proved to be a fatal blow to the enterprise.

"What we weren't able to do was communicate it in a timely manner so we didn't lose by five fatal votes, because we saw having that a nucleus of a good amount to go to the private sector," said Berta Maginniss, the chamber's executive director. "When we lost, we lost that leverage to that amount of money from the private sector."

The chamber's public statement expanded that point.

"... public funding for The Partnership was not just about the money," it stated. "It was also intended to signal our private investors that everybody was in and this initiative was on its way to making a major contribution to the economic health of the region."

Before the chamber reached a point where it would not be able to "make whole those people who've been with you," Maginniss added, the chamber's board of directors made a decision at a meeting Wednesday to close the organization.

The chamber's Welcome Center on Bonnet Street, which opened in 2012 and grew visitor traffic from 1,000 to 14,000 last year, will also close, although she will be staying on for another week to tie up loose ends, Maginniss said.

The Chamber has been the organizers and hosts of the Manchester Car Show, and planning for this year's event, scheduled for next June, is already well-advanced. Maginniss said she was going to continue with trying to organize it herself and hold the event.

The future of other chamber programs and events, such as the popular Concerts on the Green, a series of music performances held on the town green, are for the moment up in the air. Town officials plan to discuss this latest development regarding the chamber at next Tuesday's regular select board meeting, said John O'Keefe, the town manager.

"Something will have to fill the void," he said, adding that one possibility was pulling together a group of local officials and business leaders to take the chamber's place.


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