Nothing spoils a great meal like a bitter dessert.
Such was the case Friday at the annual Marion Chamber of Commerce chili cookoff luncheon, when folks left on the sourest of notes: president Don Noller announced the chamber is closing up shop.
A lot of sweat equity has been invested over many decades, and there’s a certain sadness to be found in the chamber’s demise.
However, as the oft-repeated phrase goes, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Many conversations after Friday’s luncheon focused on what might be next. That’s good, because nobody can advocate for businesses better than businesspeople.
And make no mistake about it: Marion needs an organization of businesses dedicated to promoting business.
For whatever reason, the chamber of commerce drifted away from that focus on “commerce.” Breakfasts, lunches, banquets, beautification projects, updating the message board on Main St., promoting the library, booking the community center — all are worthy civic endeavors claimed by the chamber, and staff and members deserve thanks for these efforts.
But where among those can be found anything that sets the cash registers of local retailers a-ringing? Chambers of commerce, including this one, were created to foster healthy businesses, not to be general-purpose social or civic organizations.
Retail businesses got lost in the mix. Marion businesses selling goods to the public made up about a quarter of the chamber’s membership current memberbship, and retailers held just two of the nine chamber board positions.
At times, individuals representing churches, clubs, and out-of-town businesses, not local retailers, have dominated the leadership. It’s great that they were willing to serve, but until someone figures out why retail businesses were so underrepresented, any successor organization is likely to continue to be largely irrelevant.
Before a typical business is willing to fork over a couple hundred dollars in dues, it wants to see that this money is more than just a charitable gift to the community. But in recent years, the chamber has seemed more like a community chest, and less so a promoter of business concerns.
What a chamber needs to do is to focus less on routine services and more on creating unique opportunities that encourage retail sales and a healthy business climate.
A replacement organization should consider a flexible dues structure based on business size, rather than one-size-fits-all. Dues money should be used to pay for creating and advertising events that actually will increase local business sales. Hiring paid staff and renting facilities should be of secondary concern.
As a dutiful member of the community it serves, the Marion County Record stands ready to do whatever it can to encourage the formation of such a group. If it helps, we will volunteer free office space, free web hosting, free hosting of an email list, even discounts on advertising to organization members if the organization itself is focused on the vital goals the chamber originally was created to address.
This is not the time for Marion to hand over all of its business development to non-inclusive private and governmental groups dominated by the same old players. It’s time to reach out to all businesses in town and provide them a new business association that actually serves their needs.
— david colburn