Part 2 of 3

Making the right chamber choice

Businesses have their pick from groups big and small

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For many business owners, it is a difficult task to identify which, if any, chamber of commerce is best suited to fulfill their companies’ needs.

Options abound, with Colorado being home to more than 130 chambers.
Some of those are specifically designed for certain demographics, like the Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce.

Other chambers — the ones in Castle Rock and Golden, for example — are identified with a distinct geography. At the same time, regional organizations, like the Denver Metro, Metro North, South Metro and West chambers, boast members from wide geographical areas.

Even given those options, small businesses often find the best bet is joining an alternative group, perhaps a merchants association that caters to a relatively small swath of territory.

Amid a hypercompetitive business climate and myriad changes to their own landscape, metro area chambers must prove to companies and municipalities they are deserving of their membership.

Some believe there may be too many chambers competing with each other — which can result in businesses taking on multiple chamber affiliations and the accompanying expense. But, critics say, it could also cause chambers to lose focus on their priorities, something that could result in unintended consequences.

Room for everybody?

Before taking the position of CEO/president at the Golden Chamber of Commerce, Dawn Smith was the executive director for the Conifer Chamber of Commerce for three years.
Golden’s landmark north and south Table Mountains offer seclusion and give the city character unlike other Denver suburbs, Smith said.

“We are not typical, and I think that is an interesting way to look at the chamber as well,” she said.

The chamber is housed at the Golden Visitor’s Center, which receives 260 visitors a day, Smith reported, totaling approximately 34,000 visitors a year on average.
“That’s huge,” Smith said.

It’s also a bonus for her, in which her job is to promote and market local businesses and nonprofits daily. The benefit for businesses to join the Golden chamber is the exposure they will get from all the guests who stop in, she said.

Smaller chambers like Golden that have a well-established mission continue to be successful — it’s when chambers begin to take on too many initiatives that service overlap develops and competition inadvertently ignites between local chambers and regional chambers. That’s the view of Brian Willms, former CEO/president of the West Chamber of Commerce in Jefferson County.

“What I see chambers do is, they try to do everything and anything, they try to be all to everybody — but they need to stay in their lane,” Willms said. “Each organization individually, and then the organizations collectively, should be taking a look at what their priority mission is and who they are trying to service and then really determine collectively if there is duplicity taking place.”

For Willms, collaboration between chambers is key in order for them to continue to thrive in the years ahead. Losing focus and allowing overlap could ultimately be their downfall as they end up creating a watered-down service that benefits no one.

“Are there going to be chambers somewhere that don’t survive? Sure. It’s just like any other industry or business,” said Pam Ridler, president of the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re not listening and changing and making things happen, then you’re not going to make it.”

The newly spawned Westminster Chamber of Commerce, which was formed in December of last year independent of the Metro North Chamber of Commerce, was created to focus primarily on small businesses and Westminster itself.

Local businesses were not being well-promoted by organizations like the Jefferson County Economic Development Corp., said Jennifer Shannon, CEO/president of the Westminster Chamber.

“The problem with a large chamber like Metro North is that they just don’t have the ability to promote the individual cities. It’s kind of not really their focus,” Shannon said.
"But what they do is valuable because their large size allows them to do advocacy work and lobby, things smaller chambers like Westminster don’t have the resources to take on by themselves, Shannon said.

“I don’t know that one is necessarily better than the other,” she said. “I think we just fill different niches.”

Working in tandem

Chambers of commerce are not alone in trying to better communities’ economic plight.
Littleton belongs to its regional organization, the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, but it does not have a city-specific chamber. Like a growing number of cities, however, it has its own economic-development department, recruiting and incentivizing companies to locate within its borders.

Michael Penny, Littleton’s city manager, said there is room for both.

“I do not believe (the city’s department) diminishes the role of the chamber,” Penny said. “The (South Metro Chamber), due to their scope and area they cover, tends to focus on larger regional issues.”

Likewise, Centennial Mayor Cathy Noon believes her city’s economic development department is not a replacement for the two chambers (South Metro and Aurora) the city belongs to.

“The relationship between the city and chambers is complementary, not competitive,” she said. “We try not to overlap and duplicate resources.”

There are alternatives to chambers for smaller businesses in many communities.

In Penny’s city, for example, the Historic Downtown Littleton Merchants Association supports and promotes a number of small businesses on Main Street. Merchants associations can play a pivotal role in the development of a business community, particularly groups whose focus is on the development of a downtown.

Associations working with local chambers can allow for that chamber to branch out its efforts beyond Main Street, said the Golden Chamber’s Smith.

The Downtown Merchants Association in Golden functions as a committee of the chamber, although a person doesn’t have to be a chamber member to have a place on the DMA. When members from the DMA decided they needed to bring more people to downtown Golden, they came up with a First Friday Street Fair, which is run by the Golden Chamber.

“We’re definitely on the same team,” Smith said. “They’re part of us… an extension of us.”

Again, ensuring that local and regional chambers and merchant associations are not stepping on each other’s toes is critical, Willms said, adding that in Jeffco, it is common for chambers and economic development organizations to overlap their services.

“Although there might be collaboration going on, and I do think it’s going on very well in Jeffco, I don’t think everybody is feeling secure enough to stay in their own lanes and say I am going to define my niche,” Willms said. “I still think there’s a fear of `I’m going to lose my business.’ ”

The business of chambers of commerce might be a changing industry, Willms said, but the organizations still offer significant value that continues to attract membership. That said, there is room for improvement when it comes to prioritization, he believes.

“Sometimes that means you’ve got to be willing to give something up, and I really think that becomes a challenge a lot of times,” he said. “I really believe if you have a true agreement with the different organizations, truly collaborating, I think that they will be stronger in the long run.”

- Jennifer Smith contributed to this report.