Chambers Assess Value of ACCGS During Time of TransitionWith its leadership in transition and having endured one high-profile defection, the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield got a needed break when the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce recently decided to remain under its umbrella. The work is only beginning, however, for new ACCGS President Jeff Ciuffreda, who is committed to forging a new vision for the organization, improving communication among members, and finding new ways to demonstrate the value of a regional voice in the business community.
For the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, this was a decidedly precarious spot.
With the ACCGS already in transition mode — Jeff Ciuffreda succeeded long-time President Russell Denver in the head chair — the ACCGS endured a high-profile defection in January when the West of the River Chamber of Commerce, which represents West Springfield and Agawam, cut its ties with the regional organization.
Now it waited for a decision from the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce (ERC5). If that body — representing Ludlow, Wilbraham, Hampden, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow — defected as well, the Affiliated Chambers would suddenly be a shell of its former self.
However, after a four-month review of its situation, balancing the pros and cons of staying versus striking out on its own, the ERC5 chose not to defect, but instead to remain under the ACCGS umbrella.
“One of our tasks in going through this was to review all processes and make sure they’re working efficiently for all members,” said Tammy Bordeaux, branch manager at PeoplesBank in East Longmeadow and chairman of the East of the River board. “I can tell you that the board finds great value in being part of the ACCGS.”
The decision was a massive relief to Ciuffreda. Losing the ERC5 would have drained another 240 members after the exodus of 230 with the West of the River loss, leaving only the 550-member Springfield Chamber and the much smaller Professional Women’s Chamber.
The contrasting decisions across the Connecticut River highlight a clear divide in perceptions of the ACCGS and the value it provides as a regional chamber voice. Ciuffreda said the ERC5 recognized that value in three areas.
“One was networking opportunities — the opportunity to sell their product, if you will,” he told BusinessWest. “And then our legislative activities always rank very high. And the third thing is just the opportunity to be a good corporate citizen with some of the events the chamber puts on. Those were the major things the chambers wanted to hear about.”
Relief, however, gives way to new challenges for the new president — namely, fortifying the Affiliated Chambers’ connections, improving communication among current members, and forging a new vision going forward. And Ciuffreda says he’s excited to tackle all three.
Soon after its defection, the West of the River Chamber (WRC) announced its new affiliation with the Massachusetts Chamber of Business and Industry. But Debra Boronski, MassCBI president, said the move wasn’t about switching allegiances, but about gaining autonomy, and that her organization simply provides valuable benefits to independent chambers.
“If anything, the Massachusetts Chamber stepped in to help the West of the River Chamber. We have services we can offer that are similar to those of the ACCGS,” Boronski said, adding that the WRC wanted to be an independent organization and use its resources locally, but still appreciated the statewide networking and lobbying power the MassCBI provides.
Dale Mazanec, chairman of the West of the River Chamber, said its board of directors also spent a great deal of time examining its past activity within the ACCGS and how that larger body benefited its members, and decided it would be better served by breaking away and affiliating with the MassCBI, an organization created just four years ago by Boronski, a former ACCGS executive.
“You still have the opportunity to network locally if this is what you enjoy,” Mazanec told his members in a statement after the decision. “Most importantly, your membership in the WRC now gives you a base membership in a state chamber of commerce which will provide you with up-to-date information and active advocacy on issues that impact your bottom line.”
“We are a lobbying organization,” Boronski said. “Our primary concern is working with lawmakers on issues affecting all businesses in Massachusetts; we take positions with a statewide perspective.”
She and Mazanec both noted two recent law changes that the MassCBI promoted, one being an increase in small-claims limits from $2,500 to $7,500.
“We increased the ability of businesses to get back what they would have received from businesses that are not paying their bills,” she said. “That is worth millions and millions of dollars. Springfield alone had 6,000 small-claims cases last year, so if the cap goes from $2,500 to $7,500, that’s potentially $30 million returned to the business community.”
In addition, “we also had change in the state procurement law so that now, government agencies have permission to give Massachusetts corporations preference when bidding on state contracts,” Boronski said. “It’s not a mandate, which we wanted, but they’re being given permission.”
By focusing on statewide advocacy, she said the MassCBI gives local chambers a connection to statewide resources while letting them operate their day-to-day business independently — a preference shared by the Holyoke and Chicopee chambers, which have rejected invitations to join the ACCGS, and the Westfield chamber, which was affiliated for a few years before striking out on its own again.
At the same time, though, Boronski stressed that Western Mass. is a unique part of the Commonwealth, one that deserves special attention from the MassCBI. To that end, the chamber has developed a program called the Western Mass. Chamber Presidents Forum that will bring together chamber leaders throughout the region on a regular basis. The first event will be held on March 30 in conjunction with the Westfield Chamber of Commerce.
“There are 14 chambers of commerce in Western Mass., and all of them are unique and independent, but all of them agree that a regional voice and an opportunity to meet monthly would be of great value, so the Massachusetts chamber has stepped in to facilitate the development of that program,” she explained. “We’ll offer them information and resources so they can develop positions or statements on programs that fit the need of their demographic in Western Mass.”
“We see value in the extended networking powers we get with Outlook, the Business Expo, and all the After 5s and breakfasts our members have the ability to attend,” she continued. “From a marketing standpoint, it extends our marketing ability from the 240 members ERC5 has to 800; our board members see that the ACCGS allows our individual communities access to the regional-level information and regional-level advocacy. We certainly have confidence in Jeff, and we look forward to working with him.”
Ciuffreda said the ERC5 also appreciates having its executive director, Sarah Tsitso, working full-time in the ACCGS offices, giving those communities a constant connection to the regional body’s activities and decisions.
“They have a dedicated person to respond to their changing needs or priorities,” he explained, “and behind that person, because of our regional structure, is a team to do the legislative advocacy and event management.”
Bordeaux agreed. “Certainly, one of the positive aspects is shared resources, and Sarah is extremely dynamic for us. Those shared resources allow our board and committees to use their time to the best of their ability helping businesses grow.”
Ciuffreda stressed, however, that chambers aligned with the ACCGS can still forge their own identity, and is pleased that the East of the River chamber feels comfortable with the level of independence it has.
“They have their own board, so if they want to sponsor a golf tournament that benefits a scholarship fund, we’re able to do that for them,” he said. “It’s their unique brand in their communities, but at the same time, they realized that they were able to reach out with a regional organization to a larger audience.”
For example, “in legislative affairs, we can reach out to Springfield legislators and explain to them, say, the importance of Ludlow Mills, that it’s not just a Ludlow project, but that a lot of their workers will cross the bridge and go to work there. It’s a regional concept; what’s good for one community either benefits the other or wouldn’t be possible without other communities. I think they saw that they could preserve what makes their communities unique, but also the value of acting in a regional manner.”
Ciuffreda said the proposal he prepared for the West of the River Chamber was a strong one, but he was unable to present it in time. Still, he stands by the value and relevance of the Affiliated Chambers in its current form.
He admitted there are ways the ACCGS can improve how it serves its members, and said the change in leadership and the recent challenge of keeping its members on board (or losing them) provides an opportunity to rethink some of its procedures.
For example, “I’m not sure we communicated to the board and to our members enough, so I think we’ll be sharing more information,” he said. “I’ll use the word ‘transparent’ — to make our board meetings more interactive, to be sure that any questions are responded to immediately. We’re going to listen.”
Ciuffreda and ACCGS leadership will also spend the next few months engaging in strategic planning to create a vision of what the organization should be going forward. There’s plenty to consider, he said, from outreach to companies that have not participated in many chamber activities to the growing profile of nonprofits in the regional business community.
“We have to get a better ebb and flow of information to and from our members,” he said. “Everything is on the table.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]