by James Heffernan
Local chambers of commerce in Shenandoah County are considering teaming up to increase their leverage.
Representatives from the county’s five town chambers — New Market, Mount Jackson, Edinburg, Woodstock and Strasburg — met in September to weigh the pros and cons of forming a countywide chamber. Those discussions are ongoing, and an exploratory committee has been assembled to assess the financial viability of such a merger.
“Each chamber is getting together to see if it would be the right move,” says Jenna French, executive director of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce, the county’s largest business organization with approximately 230 members. “We agreed that it would behoove us to gather more information” and to weigh the costs and opportunities involved, she says.
The idea of combining chambers is not new in Shenandoah County. Informal discussions have been taking place since the 1990s. But the recent downturn in the economy, together with the movement among business advocacy groups toward regionalism, has brought the issue to a head.
“There is a belief in the chamber world that there is strength in numbers, that you can get more done with a larger geographic area,” says Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber, which serves Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties. “Your political voice is louder, your constituency is greater, and your finances generally are improved.”
Virginia has seen the trend play out in regions like Hampton Roads, Roanoke and, more recently, Prince William County, which now boasts the largest chamber in the Washington metro area with nearly 2,000 member businesses.
According to the Woodstock chamber, about two-thirds of its membership has expressed an interest in exploring a countywide merger. The remainder has concerns about what the combination would mean for preserving the town’s identity and being able to address business issues on a local level.
Shenandoah County already has an advisory group with representation from each of the five chambers plus the Bryce Resort area. The group collaborates closely on events like the annual Route 11 Yard Crawl, a 43-mile chain of yard sales that draws bargain hunters from neighboring counties and states.
French says her group is fortunate in that its membership is growing. “Some of the other chambers are not finding themselves in that place.” Merger talks are being driven in part by finances, she says. “If we’re here to serve our members, it doesn’t make sense for them to have to pay the dues to join more than one chamber.”
As a business advocate, your resources are often limited, says Collins, a veteran chamber executive who advised board members and staff in Shenandoah in the fall. “Local governments don’t always have the funding, and you’re competing with nonprofits and other causes.”
The Top of Virginia Regional Chamber grew out of the merger of the Winchester-Frederick County and Clarke County chambers in 2006. While the marriage hasn’t always been easy — the new chamber had to absorb Clarke’s debt and help mend some relationships with the Berryville business community — “for us the pros far outweighed the cons,” Collins says.
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