Matt Harrington: Why we changed the name of the chamber

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Last Friday, at the close of our annual membership business meeting, I announced that effective immediately the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce would now be known as the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

This name change was adopted to better reflect our mission to be a regionally recognized Chamber for membership growth and assistance, operational and leadership excellence, and a catalyst for Southern Vermont economic development.

The change was not taken lightly and has been at the forefront of the board of directors' minds since 2017 when we set off on our 2020 Vision. This past year, the board met repeatedly to discuss the change culminating in a 6-hour retreat in the fall to finally decide.

In December, the new name was decided by an overwhelming vote by the board of directors and is fully supported by the chamber staff and myself.

2020 will be a full year of unveiling this new organization, a new brand, logo and a renewed mission to be our member's partner, advocate, connector and catalyst. You should start to see some changes immediately, but we want to do this right, so we expect that this transition will take a full year — thank you ahead of time for your patience and support!

For Bennington members, nothing will change. You should still expect the best customer service, educational programs, business advocacy, Garlicfest and more as you always have. I want to thank you for being the foundation of this chamber for more than a century. Your hard work ethic, ability to adapt, and loyalty to this organization are the reasons why this chamber still stands strong today. We will not forget that!

For other towns and communities, including the Northshire, in Southwestern Vermont, we plan to provide you with the same level of commitment and advocacy as we have for the Bennington community for over 109 years. Please provide feedback and engage with us as we go on this new journey together.

All that being said, this change can still be hard. I understand that and the possible tension between the traditions and the future.

Change is the only constant in life and yet we, as a people, are at odds with change in every aspect of our life. We like stability and "the known." The unknown can be scary and threatening. However, change is inevitable.

My job is to figure out how best we prepare our community, members and staff to deal with change at the organizational level.

Over the course of the past three years, as we have found ground in the Northshire and have witnessed the opportunity of the full Southwestern Vermont region working together. Perhaps you still have some questions; I'll try to answer a few of them below:

What is the background for the change? What has led up to this need to change?

I don't believe it was ever in the long-term strategy to create a regional chamber, especially when I was hired to the Bennington Chamber in early 2016. However, we had a tragic event with the closure of the Manchester Chamber and that provided us with a new view and perspective on the matter. As we heard many Northshire businesses ask, "who now will represent the business community and our needs?", our board took a good, long year to find ways to assist (including handing out Manchester Visitor Guides, answering the Manchester phone, managing the URL, etc.). Eventually, it became obvious that this chamber had to take action and seek to become a fully regionalized chamber as a long-term strategy to stabilize the business community of the region.

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What challenges or problems are we facing in the current situation that will cripple us if we don't begin addressing them today? What is the impact of these challenges?

Two real challenges emerged when we began to look at the various implications of what was happening in our region. A bit more micro, the closing of the Manchester Chamber created business and economic challenges to our north - from destination marketing and a welcome center to advocacy and funding. The more macro challenge we faced, and currently face as a chamber, is the dissolution and consolidation of chambers of commerce specifically in Vermont. What was a region with four to five chambers at one time, now only has two (Dorset and us). In order to survive as a region, we needed to explore the consolidation route to better manage funds, resources, strategies and goals. In order to thrive as a region, we needed to explore how this chamber could help all businesses within The Shires.

What will happen if we stay the same? Why should we act now?

If we had stayed where we were I fear we would not have seen some of the impressive things we've seen in our region over the past few years. We have seen our region's Stay To Stay program kick into high gear with over 60 people going through the program in the past two years and eight of those people moving here! We would not have seen the Vermont Shires Connector travel daily from Penn Station to Albany to Bennington and on to Manchester. We would not have seen the Northern investment into the South with the likes of the Putnam Project, Brush Building, and more! We still have our challenges, but those were some impressive wins in only a couple of years! Author of "Great By Choice," Jim Collins, suggested that everyone has good luck and everyone has bad luck, return-on-luck is what you do with the luck once it's happened to you. In these chaotic times we ran into some "unfortunate" luck with being the only chamber of our size left in the region. The leadership of the chamber had to decide what to do with that luck and how we progress forward creating a new future for ourselves.

What are we going to have to let go of and why?

Of course, with all change we have to let some things go, too. As mentioned, the board or myself did not take the name change lightly. We felt that even though Bennington had been the foundation of the chamber, that the healthiest and wisest decision moving forward was to be more inclusive in our title. This is something we've been building up to. The past three years have seen a huge expansion by this chamber to embrace the Northshire and all the collective 17 towns of Southwestern Vermont. The name change is the final crescendo of that 2020 vision; the peak; a celebration of the foundational elements this chamber and its members have been laying out for three years. As business owners and community leaders, we have had to adapt and evolve daily to accommodate the changing landscape and the needs of the region. Likewise, this chamber made the change because we believe the name change will only quicken our ability to support and represent the full region.

What will the change require? What will it cost us to change? What will it cost us if we don't change?

The change will require a lot from each and every one of us. As we've said before, our economic future is bright so long as we believe that we are stronger together as a region. What role do we need you to play? Begin to walk in the boldness together knowing that your brothers from the north, sisters from the south are just that - kin. Let's put down the rhetoric that pits us against one another and take up arms to advance the region. My father, a four-decade-long news reporter, once said of his mission: "to help bring those opposing views together to educate and inform and urge calmness and maturity." Let's do that: let's seek to be above the fray, to think the best of people and their intentions, to say yes before thinking no, and to work for the collective benefit of all.

How will we know when we have succeeded?

I'm sure we will all have our own definitions of success. I think for me it's this: I want to make sure people, communities and businesses grow and prosper for the good of all in our region. I want Southwestern Vermont to be the best place to start a business and raise a family in the entire Northeast. I want to inspire a new generation of business owners and community members to be a catalyst for the Southwestern Vermont growth.

What does our success look like for you?

Being from Southwestern Vermont, running a business in Southwestern Vermont, raising a family in Southwestern is something to be proud of. It's time we all walk in that fact and work together to secure our economic future.

Matt Harrington is the executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce.


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