The Challenge Facing Our Chambers

The board of directors for the East of the River Chamber of Commerce voted late last month to continue its relationship with the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, a move that brought a dose of stability to an agency that sorely needed some.
The ACCGS, as it’s called, lost its long-time director, Russell Denver, in January, and soon thereafter saw a 40-year-long affiliation with the West of the River Chamber (Agawam and West Springfield) come to an abrupt, if not unpredicted, end.
This short but tumultuous chain of events brought with it no end of speculation about Denver’s departure, the future of the ACCGS, the apparently larger presence of the Massachusetts Chamber of Business and Industry (now managing the West of the River group), and the prospects for chambers as a whole.
The East of the River vote has calmed the waters somewhat, although there are still questions and some uncertainty about what happens next.
What we hope happens is some kind of workable balance between the need for regionalism, for the Western Mass. business community to speak with one voice, and also community pride and independence, in the form of chambers representing individual cities and towns across this area. This will be a difficult assignment for sure.
But let’s back up a minute. The ACCGS was formed to give the comparatively small chambers in this region (in communities like Ludlow, West Springfield, Agawam, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow) a louder, stronger voice, and also an opportunity to better-serve members through services that the Affiliated Chambers could offer (like a dedicated legislative watchdog) and the smaller chambers couldn’t.
And, for the most part, it worked out. Just how well it worked depends on who gets asked that question.
Problems, if they can be called that, arose when the Holyoke and Chicopee Chambers were invited to join the ACCGS and further this concept of a regional chamber, and said, in essence, ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and remained independent. Meanwhile, Westfield, courted in a similar fashion, said ‘yes,’ tried it for a few years, and then went back to an independent state, claiming that something (mostly a degree of its business identity) was lost in the translation.
Things became more complicated after the economy turned south in a big way. Businesses pressed to keep the lights on and meet payroll shed many expenses they deemed non-vital, and, in many cases, that meant the chamber and, more specifically, the ACCGS.
The organization has struggled considerably over the past few years, and quality of service has been impacted, leaving affiliates exploring and, in the case of the West of the River Chamber, exercising other options.
Where does all this leave us? In a somewhat difficult spot, one where communities like Amherst, Easthampton, Westfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, and Northampton want and need a chamber to call their own, but the region needs a strong voice if it is to compete globally.
Can both goals be met? Perhaps, and it is in the best interests of all the chambers and their respective boards to try to find a way. There can be independence and a sense of identity (a chamber office on most cities’ Main Street) but also a larger, more powerful force that can have an impact on regional economic-development efforts. But this can only come through cooperation, not competition and territoriality.
The bottom line is that chambers exist, or should exist, for one reason and one reason only — to effectively serve their members and the business community (however broad or narrow that term is defined geographically) as a whole. Doing this is becoming increasingly difficult as chambers become smaller and resources thinner.
The challenge moving forward is to find new and better ways for chambers to keep their identities while also working together to better-serve members, attract many new ones, and thereby strengthen their organizations and the region. Maybe now that we’ve restored at least a sense of stability, there can be movement in this direction.

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