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MISSION: COMMERCE: Close to home: Smaller chambers focus tightly on local businesses

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Events such as this Oct. 6 Bridge Bust are a major focus for Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce. The annual fundraiser, now in its 24th year, takes place on the Route 465 Veterans Memorial Bridge between Columbia and Wrightsville (in Lancaster and York counties). The event is closed to traffic, and more than 300 vendors offer antiques, art, crafts and food. Photo/Submitted
Events such as this Oct. 6 Bridge Bust are a major focus for Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce. The annual fundraiser, now in its 24th year, takes place on the Route 465 Veterans Memorial Bridge between Columbia and Wrightsville (in Lancaster and York counties). The event is closed to traffic, and more than 300 vendors offer antiques, art, crafts and food. Photo/Submitted

Need proof that community still matters in this digital age? Look no further than small chambers of commerce.

There are bigger chambers, usually, that its businesses are eligible to join. There are trade group associations. There are Main Street programs.

But when it comes to promoting local businesses, small companies are still putting their money on the neighborhood chamber.

"Our chamber is a very close-knit group of people that are very loyal to this particular area," says Jodi Sensenig, president of the Southern Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce.

They are also, largely, small businesses, and at last count there were 214 of them.

The story is much the same at the Northern Dauphin Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has about 70 members, and at the Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, which has about 270 members. They want to keep dollars in the area, and that means bringing small businesses together.

"Pretty much everything you need or want, you can get here," says Matt Kocher, board president of Northern Dauphin. "You might pay a dollar or two more for the products, but you're keeping the money here in our local economy."

Members like being in a group with other companies of similar size, leaders say: They're more comfortable networking than they would be in a crowd of larger companies and more confident that their voices will be heard.

Lower membership fees also matter, according to the chapters, as do local events. Some, like Southern Lancaster's Christmas tree lighting or Susquehanna Valley's restaurant fair, are focused squarely on cultivating area business-to-business and consumer deals. Others aim to bring in outside dollars.

"We are undertaking some initiatives to reach out of the area," says Kocher.

Although it's probably never going to be a tourist destination in and of itself, the area is close enough to Hershey and Gettysburg that visitors might be enticed to come spend half a day at the Lake Tobias Wildlife Park or the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art, Kocher says.

At Susquehanna Valley, executive director Kathleen Hohenadel says the area's history and geography are also drawing cards for everything from the annual Bridge Bust crafts and antiques sale to its Chiques Challenge run and kayak event and a Civil War anniversary event being planned for next June. Some visitors come from as far away as Delaware, she says.

Naturally, small chambers can't offer legislative and training resources on the same level that their larger counterparts can — but they work hard to provide value for their members.

"We do actually spend a good bit of time with our local government representatives," says Kocher. Intentionally cultivating those relationships helps the chamber give its members a voice in the larger arena and also keeps them informed, he says.

Anything that directly translates into dollars saved is big with Susquehanna Valley members, Hohenadel says, whether that's reduced rates for chamber members or more competitive energy or insurance costs.

Susquehanna Valley is starting a print advertising campaign that will spotlight its members in good standing, Hohenadel says, and since it's been working on making its own website more smartphone friendly, it's offering members competitive pricing on the same service.

"We have several different programs like that," Hohenadel says. "That's a big thing for them."

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer covers Lancaster County, nonprofits, education and health care. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at heathers@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @StaufferCPBJ.

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