Regional chamber explored

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ARLINGTON >> A regional chamber of commerce may be one of the solutions emerging in the wake of the closure of the former Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Discussions have been held between the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and the Shires Regional Marketing Organization to explore ways of filling the vacuum created by the recent decision taken by the directors of the Manchester-based chamber of commerce to take the organization through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, effectively dissolving the organization.

According to a statement released Friday, a meeting between representatives of the two organizations, along with some members of the former Manchester chamber was held Tuesday, May 3, at the Shires marketing organization's office in Arlington, where the idea of a single, unified regional chamber was discussed.

"If we were to pursue a single chamber, it would be in the context of dissolving the one chamber to create a new chamber with Manchester and the Mountains, Bennington and all the surrounding towns in the region being co-equals, with equal representation on the board to ensure that the needs of both are met," said Jonathan Spivak, the first vice president of the Bennington area chamber. "This is a bold idea. If it works, we would become the second most powerful chamber in the state overnight."

Another meeting of key community leaders is planned for early June to continue the discussions. The Shires marketing organization will organize the event, according to the statement.

The Shires organization was first formed in the 1990s and assumed its current name in 2006 following a regional branding exercise led by Hildene, the Lincoln family home, in Manchester. Since then it has worked with both the Bennington and Manchester chambers to promote the county as a whole. The creation of the Shires Byway and other marketing efforts, including a website and a brochure distribution system have been among the outcomes.

The meeting in June would potentially be the precursor to a plan which would lead to the creation of a regional chamber, according to Friday's statement.

"Those who live in the Shires region are equally aware that while north and south shires share many assets, at the same time each may possess assets that others may not," said Paula Maynard, a board member of the Shires Regional Marketing Organization. "Together the region has it all."

The discussions about forming a new county-wide chamber were precipitated by closing of the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce on April 15, in the wake of a failure to make a transition into a new public-private entity which was to be known as The Partnership. The Manchester chamber had sought $75,000 in public financing from the 18 towns in its marketing territory, and while it was successful in most, it was turned down by five votes in Manchester, which was being asked to pony up one-third, or $25,000, of the $75,000 sought. The Partnership would have used the money to promote economic development initiatives and tourist destination marketing. The existing chamber of commerce had determined from an 18 month-long series of focus group meetings and discussions that this was a course it needed to pursue.

The defeat of the proposed Partnership's funding request in Manchester doomed the idea, leading directly to the eventual decision to shut its doors entirely six weeks later.

That move has left several prominent Manchester area business and community leaders scrambling to offset the loss of the chamber's visitor's center, which last year served about 14,000 travelers and tourists to the region.

Calls have been issued for some kind of organization to replace the role the chamber played in order to promote area businesses dependent on luring visitors and commentary on social media channels has been extensive.

"We're going to have to create something to keep the information flowing, plan the events and find the volunteers," said Jamie Dufour, a businesswoman who organized a "Pick up the pieces" meeting recently in Manchester. "I do not want to leave a vacuum. I think it's imperative that we have a chamber or a replacement thereof."

Other ideas have included developing a new app for visitors, and a build-out of a website that focuses on Manchester and its attractions, in addition to the $25,000 the town has earmarked to promote itself through radio ads and a website presence.

The Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce has already reached out to try and help, by fielding the former Manchester chamber's phone calls and by offering to plug the gap in other ways, such as helping maintain their website or setting up a temporary welcome center, said Matt Harrington, the Bennington chamber's executive director.

In an interview conducted two weeks ago, before the discussions held earlier this week with the Shires Regional Marketing Organization, Harrington emphasized the intent to be good neighbors and help out in times of need. But the idea of forming a regional, chamber will require some careful thought and planning, he said.

He would want to take a good reading of what his chamber's existing members thought of the idea before moving too far down that track, he said.

"These are far-reaching implications that would take a lot more thought and process and bring to our members and to see what the Manchester community wants as well," he said, adding it was not something they would rush into blindly and that he didn't want the Bennington chamber to be perceived as moving into someone else's territory. "There are still a lot of unknowns."


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