Creating a Stronger, Unified Voice
Valley Leaders Announce a Hampshire County Chamber of Commerce
Suzanne Beck says there are many things about the recently formed Hampshire County Chamber of Commerce that she doesn’t know yet — such as the official name (that’s the working title above), the specific operating structure, or which organizations will choose to affiliate with it.
But what she does know is that, if this entity comes together and evolves in the manner that supporting businesses and economic-development leaders expect, it will provide something that has been historically missing from this eclectic and vibrant part of the state — a truly regional voice.
“The vision for the organization is not what’s in place right now, but what we’re building toward,” said Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and also the interim director for the Hampshire County Chamber, as she discussed the primary motivations for creating the new body. “The vision is to have an organization that can serve as an umbrella for local business agencies that may include more than chambers, and be more effective and create more capacity for doing direct service to business, but also convene and represent the economic initiatives we’d like to advance as a region.”
“It’s really about convening people across the county,” she continued. “Now, the representation is fragmented in terms of reporting views to elected officials and those in various sectors across the region and statewide. A regional chamber will help construct a consistent voice on priorities for Hampshire County.”
Beck said formation of the regional chamber will not threaten the existence of the three chambers of commerce currently serving communities in the county — the Northampton Chamber, the Amherst Area Chamber, and the Greater Easthampton Chamber — because they have specific roles and should continue in them.
“One of the important tenets of this regional chamber is that the local chamber remains intact,” she said, “and is better supported by the increased capacity of the organizations that are part of the regional chamber. That’s one of the things we learned from talking to other people.”
The regional chamber is expected to provide the county with a strong strategic presence at the State House and before regional organizations such as the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC), she went on, adding that it will act to coordinate resources to support small businesses and “amplify” (a word she used often) attention to local issues.
In that respect, it will be similar in some ways to the EDC, which was one of many potential models that were researched while exploring how and when to proceed with a new regional entity.
The new chamber’s first assignment, said Beck, will be to convene the appropriate parties and create what she called an “economic strategy” for Hampshire County, or a blueprint moving forward, something else that’s been missing from the equation when discussing the region that includes Northampton, Amherst, Hadley, South Hadley, Easthampton, and many smaller communities.
“That’s going to be the first deliverable,” she said of the strategic plan. “It’s going to be an effort to bring people together from the business sector, the nonprofit sector, and the municipal sector to create that economic strategy for Hampshire County that identifies what the priorities are and what will have the most impact, and that we can all share in working toward.”
Beck told BusinessWest that the new chamber, created with a formal vote at the annual meeting of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce on March 10, continues a pattern of regional thinking and doing in Hampshire County. Examples include formation of Leadership Hampshire County, an initiative to cultivate young leaders across the country, and also the Regional Tourism Council in 2011 — an organization that is in some ways a model for the new chamber — as well as a decidedly regional approach to redevelopment of the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton. Meanwhile, it also echoes steps taken in regions across the Northeast and beyond to incorporate a more-regional approach to economic development.
Citing one of many such efforts, Beck listed the Portland, Maine Business Alliance, a group comprised of several chambers in that area as well as other economic-development agencies.
Rus Peotter, general manager at WGBY public television in Springfield, who will serve as the chairman for the new regional chamber, agreed, noting that the regional model is not a new concept.
“It’s already here in our region in the Berkshires, Franklin County, and Springfield, but it’s even bigger around the country,” he said. “There are many models across the country. This is not a completely new concept or something we’re trying to invent.”
Peotter said a regional chamber will provide the county with better representation at regional economic-development meetings where decisions are made about funding and priorities for the Pioneer Valley. “With a regional chamber, the county will not only have someone in the room, they’ll have someone at the table.
“The county will have representation at these meetings and will have some clout,” he added. “You have to have enough gravitas to even be considered a player, and right now, Hampshire County does not. It’s not like it’s being excluded. There’s just no one person to call.”
Beck concurred, noting that, while Hampshire County business leaders serve on the boards for organizations such as the EDC, they represent their respective businesses, and not Hampshire County as a whole, while doing so.
Founding members of the chamber have already invested over one-third of the $400,000 needed over two years to get the concept in full gear, said Beck, adding that regional partners are being invited to become first-tier investors in the new entity, investing in the concept and helping to raise that $400,000 for startup work.
The initial to-do list includes the aforementioned brainstorming on a regional economic-development agenda, and also organizing events that focus on opportunities in Hampshire County. The Hampshire County Chamber will be a new legal entity with a structure for local organizations to affiliate with, starting with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and its members.
The startup funds will be used for the first two years of operations, after which the regional chamber will be supported by member dues.
Founding directors of the regional chamber include Peotter; David DelVecchio, owner of Innovative Business Systems, Easthampton; William Dimmitt, account manager for the AxiA Group, Easthampton and Springfield; John Heaps, president of Florence Savings Bank; William Hogan, president and CEO of Easthampton Savings Bank; Chuck McCullagh, chief financial officer of the Williston Northampton School, Easthampton; Curt Shumway, partner at Hampshire Hospitality Group; and Janet Warren, owner of MarCom Capital in Hatfield.
One-third of the startup funds have been raised by the founding members and the following businesses and organizations: Coldwell Banker Upton Massamont Realtors of Florence and South Deerfield, Easthampton Savings Bank, Florence Savings Bank, Innovative Business Systems, MarCom Capital, Pioneer Training of Northampton, Robert Reckman of Northampton, Smith College in Northampton, United Personnel of Easthampton and Springfield, WGBY-TV, and Williston Northampton School.
— George O’Brien