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MISSION: COMMERCE: Large chambers of commerce offer resources, scope

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About a year ago, the York County Chamber of Commerce and the York County Economic Development Corp. joined forces, uniting under an umbrella organization, the York County Economic Alliance.

Doing so gives the two organizations more resources, more efficiency and a more powerful voice for business advocacy, said Darrell Auterson, YCEA president and CEO.

"It was the right thing to do," he said.

The midstate's three largest chambers are the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with more than 2,300 members; the YCEA, with about 1,550; and the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, with about 1,400.

The Harrisburg chamber serves Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties; the other two serve their respective counties.

Depending on their needs and scope of operations, businesses may find it worthwhile to join a large chamber, a small one, or both, chamber leaders said. There is room for, and need for, chambers of all sizes, they said.

Nevertheless, size does confer some advantages, they noted.

Greater resources: Larger chambers have larger budgets and larger staffs and can take advantage of economies of scale.

It costs roughly the same to run a 1,500-member chamber as a 1,000-member chamber, said David Black, president of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber. That potentially gives the larger organization the chance to get more bang for its members' bucks.

"Your dollars are used more efficiently," he said.

More networking opportunities: More members means more potential business relationships. Large chambers have more diverse memberships and wider geographic scope.

Smaller chambers mostly have smaller footprints. Many tend to have retail-oriented memberships and focus on Main Street issues, said Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

At a large chamber, "your contacts list is immediately larger," Black said.

Legislative clout: Larger chambers have full-time government affairs personnel, often including registered lobbyists, and are accustomed to negotiating in Harrisburg.

"We live in an era of specialized legislation," Black said.

That means expertise is needed, which large chambers can provide. Also, when a large chamber unites a broad cross-section of the business community behind an issue, "it makes more of an impact," he said.

Uniting the York chamber and EDC took about 14 months, Auterson said. After studying the issue and voting to affiliate, the organizations formed the YCEA as of Nov. 1, 2011. That gave them two months to set things up so they could hit the ground running Jan. 1, he said.

In the first half of the year, they worked on fully integrating the two cultures, he said. Since then, leaders have been defining the YCEA's mission and developing a strategic plan, he said.

Affiliating a chamber and EDC moves York closer to the Harrisburg model, where the Capital Region Economic Development Corp. is the chamber's "economic development arm." In Lancaster, the chamber and the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County are separate entities.

Every EDC is slightly different, said David Nikoloff, Lancaster EDC president. Some own land, some take positions on public policy issues. In Lancaster, the chamber and EDC see "a clear delineation between the two organizations," and believe it makes sense to remain separate, he said.

"It's been clear that we do projects, they do the other side of the business equation," he said.

That said, an EDC and chamber can help each other without formal affiliation. In Lancaster, the chamber is the EDC's landlord, providing IT and some administrative support services to the smaller organization, Nikoloff said.

Such relationships apply more broadly as well. Midstate business organizations have long engaged in a wide variety of cooperative ventures, formal and informal, to extend their reach and advance their members' interests.

The Greater Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce has been heavily involved in high-stakes battles to keep open the Dickinson Law School (now Penn State Dickinson School of Law), the U.S. Army War College and Carlisle Barracks. The chamber worked successfully with local, state and federal officials and other business groups on those efforts, President Michelle Crowley said.

On more routine matters, too, "we tend to work with all the chambers," she said.

Another example of cooperation: The Carlisle-based Cumberland Area EDC is opening a satellite office in November at the West Shore Chamber of Commerce. Up to now, the chamber has let the EDC use its offices on an as-needed basis.

Cumberland County has many small communities, and local chambers can serve their specific needs, said George Book, interim president and CEO of the West Shore Chamber of Commerce.

"The big thing is having chambers work together," he said.

In York County, the YCEA is excited about having "a bigger, bolder voice," Auterson said.

One of the new affiliation's first initiatives is an expanded business expo, now billed as an international business and workforce expo.

The event will incorporate the World Trade Center of Central Pennsylvania's trade fair as well as presentations on career opportunities aimed at high school and college students.

It is all part of YCEA's branding of York County as an international manufacturing and design center, Auterson said.

A recent Brookings Institute study ranked York County as one of the country's top manufacturing regions. The expo will help people understand that by bringing home the importance of manufacturing in ways people can see and touch, Auterson said.

"That's going to be our first big event," he said. "We're putting community on notice: This new organization is serious about taking it to another level."

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