Marion Chamber of Commerce just had a near-death experience.
Recent changes could have stripped the chamber of its only paid employee and its office, and left it with nothing other than monthly lunch meetings to prove its existence. There’s no guarantee the chamber would have dissolved, but the adversity would have been unprecedented.
That crisis has been avoided for now, but the threat of it has left the chamber in a position of critical self-reflection as to what its purpose and structure should be.
At its last meeting, chamber president Don Noller asked members for ideas to restructure and recalibrate for a chamber of commerce that existed without secretary Margo Yates. She had been targeted by the city as a candidate for a full-time position with a newly created city department.
The school district, which originally planned to cut Yates from its books June 30, elected to maintain her through 2015, allowing the chamber to operate under its current structure for six more months.
That also allows the chamber time to adjust, which isn’t to say it has a plan in place yet.
“We hadn’t gotten too far into those discussions before it came down” that the current situation would continue through 2015, Noller said. “It’s something we need to discuss in a board meeting. I’m just one opinion. We need everybody else’s opinions and thoughts.”
Ideas broached at the May chamber meeting included an increase in annual dues in hopes of paying for a full-time employee as well as a change in direction for the chamber as a whole.
Noller said the chamber was trying to accommodate all sectors of business: service, retail, professional, and others.
Retailer Jan Davis, of Gallery 101 on Main St., is not a member. She said dues, which have been $200 a year since 1995, were too expensive and that too few activities focused on local retailers.
“We need to see some benefits,” Davis said.
She cited the Christmas Celebration in Marion event, which was run by downtown businesses and featured retail sales, a parade, musicians, and craft workshops. Davis was a co-organizer.
It ran for three consecutive years, from 2011 to 2013. Davis said she could not organize a 2014 festival because of personal reasons. Without her, no festival happened.
“I would think that it’s events like that the chamber should be planning,” Davis said. “We did it all ourselves on a shoestring budget.”
Davis said she operated her business for years before the chamber asked her to join, and she hasn’t felt welcome since declining.
“A lot of businesses involved are the grocer, John Deere — you know, places that will survive,” she said. “We do need some new ideas, that’s for sure.”
City economic development director Terry Jones, who works closely with the chamber, was diplomatic but supported the idea that the chamber should look out for all businesses.
“Every business sector is important,” Jones said. “I can’t say retailers deserve more attention, but I can’t say they deserve less. If they are getting less attention, then in my eyes, that could be different.”
Noller noted that the chamber had sponsored retail programs over the years.
“Some have been successful; some have been just average,” he said. “We used to have a retail committee that met, and one of the businesses is no longer a member, somebody else left to take a job out of town, and no other members have stepped forward.”
Jones, who took over as economic development director in April 2014, said while he didn’t see much interest in downtown storefronts in his first “six to nine months,” things have been better lately.
“The last three to six months, I’ve had multiple people, be it local entrepreneurs or other businesses, interested in moving downtown,” Jones said. “Those things go in cycles, and I think it’s coming back around to where downtown in six months to a year, it’s where people will want to be.”
Jones said it’s his job to work with all businesses in town, not just chamber members, but the chamber meetings are a convenient way to reach many businesses at once.
Noller said that nonmembers were welcome to approach the chamber with ideas.
“To get started, they can call Margo and talk with her,” he said. “She’s been doing this for 20-some years. I can’t think of a better place to start than with her.”