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Volunteers resuscitate Greater Wakefield Chamber of Commerce

Members seek return to roots as business advocate

November 18, 2010
WAKEFIELD —The Greater Wakefield Chamber of Commerce, plagued in recent years with anemic participation and dwindling membership, is looking to fill board vacancies and revamp its mission statement.

Approximately 22 out of 32 paid members turned out for the 2010 pivotal annual meeting held last Thursday, Nov. 11 at the Greater Wakefield Resource Center in Union. Current Chamber President Chris Racine, Interim Treasurer Cathie Chasse and Executive Board Directors Ed Morrison and Rod Cools called the meeting to discuss the chamber's future and recruit "new blood."

"We're trying to reach out to our membership to keep the Greater Wakefield Chamber of Commerce active," said Racine. I for one would hate to see this group go away. We have reached out to our membership and said 'let's turn this around.' Let's create some excitement with the board, generate new ideas and new projects, so that there is an exciting synergy for the chamber," she added.

As it stood prior to the meeting, only four of the chamber's nine board slots were occupied, with Racine's term expiring in March 2011 and Chasse looking to step away from her interim treasurer post she's held for many years. The chamber's bylaws require the board to consist of nine members. During the meeting several newly active members stepped up, including Tom Dube and Bryan Berlind, who volunteered as directors, and Pam Judge and Larissa Mulkern, who joined Dube on an ad hoc committee to address membership and mission statement. Local insurance agent Janet Bye volunteered to assist in a letter to the board.

The chamber coordinates many community activities including Wakefield Pride Day, the Citizen of the Year, Secret Santa, and the annual golf tournament that supports the chamber's scholarship program. Racine pointed out that the scholarships awarded are among the highest dollar amounts.

"For a small chamber, we do very well. We're small and mighty, I think," said Racine. However, one problem is that the four current board members do all of the work. "I would like to see a minimum of six board members. We need to blood and energy. Working with just four members right now is tough," she added.

Members Paul Winckler and Dino Scala suggested that the bylaws be amended to allow "up to" nine members, allowing for some flexibility in the size of the board. Racine reviewed the process for amending bylaws, which would include additional meetings, paperwork with the state, and a membership vote. Winckler and others also pounced upon the need to build membership, including individual members. He noted several members in the room were not business people, per se. Chasse noted that currently the board does not have a membership committee.

Pam Judge said the chamber should ask why not more are participating. "We need to change what we're doing," she said.

On that note, member Bill Denley said in his opinion, the chamber has become too much of a "charity," with several fund raising and/or charitable events hosted during the year. "I don't believe that should be its primary purpose. The Chamber of Commerce should promote business," he said.

Scala asked, "What does a new business need?" and had a suggestion. "I always thought the chamber should be the 'go to' organization, like a liaison to the planning board, so if you came in and had questions pertaining to your business you could call the chamber," he said, adding the chamber could set up a meeting with the planning board or otherwise facilitate the exchange of information.

"I always thought that would be good to have … a liaison to the town hall," he added. Racine asked who would do that. Cools idea was to assign a cell phone number to a member who could respond to queries in short order. Currently the chamber does not have an office and the phone number's voicemail is not closely monitored. The chamber only gets a few call a month, said Chasse, and mostly from people interested in tourism. She said she didn't think the phone system – a remote voicemail set up – is the best but was the only thing they could find after the chamber closed its physical office to save money.

Local new business owner and massage therapist Lee Anne Morgan said she called that number but didn't receive an immediate reply. By the time a call was returned, she figured out what she needed. "No offense to you ladies, but I sent my membership, paid my dues, then a couple days later needed some help with an open house at the Garvin Building and I didn't hear anything until four days before the open house so it was frustrating no one was calling back," she said.

"Fortunately the town was great and told me what I had to do but it was tough at first not knowing where to go," said Morgan.

Racine said the chamber does have a board of selectmen liaison, Peter Kazprzyk, who was unable to attend the meeting, but in the future the liaison could be the go to person for municipal procedure queries.

Ed Morrison said the ideas were all good, but the chamber really needs more directors on its board to follow through on the work that needs to get done.

Mulkern suggested the board host an event to reinvigorate its membership and to highlight or market membership benefits, such as a web listing presence and business networking. It was also noted that the current web site requires updating. Many of the listed businesses on the site are no longer members and should be contacted; new businesses are missing from the list.

Winckler and other members said many people have commented that the chamber doesn't do anything for them. He later suggested a name change.

Susann Foster Brown said her name isn't even spelled correctly on her listing. She said with more members, dues could be lowered. "If you're going after membership newly, there has to be a big public relations push about the chamber is going to do those things that small businesses want," said Foster Brown.

"If you want to increase the membership, you have to say 'the chamber has changed – this is our focus. We're going to keep it tight and small and do three things a year and dues are going to be low," she added. "It's workable if you get enough people."

Board members also discussed the possibility of hiring someone with communications expertise, like former newspaper editor and current freelance journalist Mulkern, to update the site and work on public relations for the board. Mulkern volunteered to the board's secretary position. Through a letter submitted to the board, another local resident with expertise working with chambers of commerce expressed an interest to work with this chamber.

Bill Denley urged a fresh look at the chamber's Purpose Statement in the bylaws. Currently the statement reads, "The Greater Wakefield Chamber of Commerce is organized to advance the general welfare and prosperity of the Greater Wakefield area so that its citizens and all areas of its business community shall prosper. All necessary means of promotion shall be provided and particular attention and emphasis shall be given to the economic, civic, commercial, cultural, industrial and educational interests of the area."

Instead, the focus should be recalibrated towards business, he indicated. "In my view, the chamber has become a charity. It's not a whole lot different from the Lions or the Rotary or the Bearded Wonders or any of the other fine organizations to raise money to do good things. And I really don't think that should be the paramount and primary purpose of the chamber of commerce.

"My view of the chamber should be primarily interested in promoting business for its members and that needs to go beyond just having a social 'After Hours.' There really is no business purpose to the chamber. What we have focused on is Pride Day, raising money for scholarships, the Secret Santa – these are all just charitable endeavors. And I'm not sure that's the function of the chamber. Clearly there are lots of businesses who have chosen not to play anymore," said Denley, "because they don't think (the chamber) has anything to do with their business."

After additional conversation, Dube said he'd take a crack at revamping the Purpose Statement. Scala also volunteered to create some type of information packet that includes information about the town's planning and zoning board procedures.

Winckler said the chamber could send out its newsletter offering discounts and coupons to other members; he said the sign off Route 16 could list members and that generally the chamber should urge people to buy from one another.

Judge said it has taken 20 plus years for the chamber to find itself in its current straits and it would take time to recover and refocus. Lino Avellani said the chamber was good 10 years ago when he first came to town. "We need a better vision," he said, adding that the group could interact with other larger chambers.

Sandy Phipps of Frisbie Memorial Hospital successfully suggested the directors hold a meeting with ad hoc committee members to set priorities and make a decision on hiring help.

Directors were set to meet again this week on Wednesday, Nov. 17, with ad hoc committee members.

Racine also thanked local businesses Lino's Restaurant, Poor People's Pub. Seven Lakes Provisions, Lovell Lake Market, Country Goods and Groceries and C&J Pizza for providing food for the dinner meeting.

For more information on the Greater Wakefield Chamber of Commerce or to join, go to www.wakefieldnh.org or call 522-6106. Current membership fees are $75 but prorated based on a March billing date.

— Submitted by the Greater Wakefield Chamber of Commerce.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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