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MISSION: COMMERCE: Midstate chambers aim for relevance through flexibility

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Few organizations and places are the same as they were 30 years ago, much less 90 years ago.

Central Pennsylvania's chambers of commerce aren't much different in that regard. They've changed dramatically, grown as the region has grown, and today find vastly different approaches to supporting businesses.

Where chambers go in the future is anyone's guess, but many are expanding and broadening their approaches to meet the needs of their members. Flexibility has replaced rigidity even as many chambers remain focused on small areas.

The diversity of these groups is a reflection of the businesses they represent. No business is the same as the next; neither should each chamber be the same, local businesspeople said.

When first organized in 1948, the West Shore Businessmen's Association was focused entirely on providing a group for the growing West Shore business community. In 1956, the group changed its name to West Shore Chamber of Commerce.

"The (founders) saw the potential for the townships that were all cow pastures," said Ed Messner, former president of the West Shore Chamber who retired in 2010 after 41 years with the organization. "They saw what was coming."

Today, the chamber reflects more than just the business interests of the West Shore boroughs and includes members in Dauphin, Lancaster and York counties, Chairman Gary Scicchitano said.

Its focus has also expanded to offer programs that help them tackle larger issues affecting businesses on the local level, including health insurance and energy programs, he said.

"It's just like a concentric circle that gets bigger and bigger over time," said Scicchitano, vice president of the Visiting Nurses Association of Central Pennsylvania.

Even some of the smaller chambers have realized they need to broaden themselves while remaining devoted to a more tightly defined community. The Mechanicsburg Chamber of Commerce is one good example.

Its origins date to the 1920s when the Auto Dealers and Merchants Association was the sponsor for Jubilee Day, one of the largest one-day street festivals on the East Coast. The association decided to become a permanent organization and in 1927 became the Mechanicsburg Chamber of Commerce.

For most of its history, the chamber's primary focus was Jubilee Day and support for community organizations around Mechanicsburg, Executive Director Jeff Palm said.

That's changed in the last five or six years as the chamber focuses more on business-to-business programming, such as women's networking lunches, business strategy sessions between owners, and owners roundtables. In each case, it's businesses helping each other build better companies and closer to what other chambers do for their members.

"We tried to get away from being just Jubilee Day and community events," Palm said.

That's helped the chamber maintain its membership of about 400 at a time when many chambers are feeling the squeeze because of tight economic times, he said. It's even gained a few members from larger chambers.

"We have some members who come from other, more-expensive chambers because we cost less," Palm said.

The York County Economic Alliance, the merger between the York Chamber of Commerce and the York County Economic Development Corp., has seen some of the downward pressure on its membership, Chairman Loren Kroh said. Its membership today is about 1,500, but that's down some from years past.

"Every business evaluates every expense, and there's been a decline in membership locally, and that's the case statewide and nationally, too," he said.

The Harrisburg Regional Chamber has seen membership decline from 1,700 three years ago, according to Business Journal records.

"The recession has cost chambers membership nationwide," said David Black, chamber president. "Our numbers are similar to our peers in Lancaster, York and Reading."

He equated the loss to very small businesses and sole proprietors — some who have even ceased doing business in slow economic times.

"We have made adjustments to focus on some key business clusters along with business needs in a tough economy," Black said. "Our larger members have stuck with us and been more engaged. As a result, our bottom line has been solid in a tough economy, enabling us to adjust and act."

The essential question that all chambers have to ask themselves is this: How do they remain relevant to their members? said David Nikoloff, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County and a nonvoting board member of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Remaining relevant will require good communication and an intense focus on how they can help local businesses succeed, he said. It's a matter of chambers balancing larger issues with that local focus, he said.

"You can talk about free trade — who's against free trade, right? — but eventually those local businesses are going to ask, 'What are you doing that benefits me on a day-to-day basis?'" Nikoloff said.

That's why there are so many smaller chambers that focus on a handful of communities because they can concentrate their efforts as opposed to being diffuse, he said.

Small local and larger regional models can survive together, and likely provide businesses with greater value through varied programming, said Kroh, president of York-based educational software company Corvus. It's one way for chambers to remain relevant and gain back members as they demonstrate the real value to businesses on the local level, he said.

Nikoloff pointed to Lancaster's focus on transportation funding, something the Harrisburg Regional Chamber has also devoted time to. Most chambers also spend time helping members understand the shifting energy markets over the years and how they can save money.

The York County Economic Alliance has put a lot of stock into workforce retention and development, Kroh said. It's an essential need of every company now and into the future, he said.

"Historically, chambers have provided business-to-business connections, and we continue to do that," Kroh said. "But today, it's equally important for us to help companies connect with a talented workforce, too."

The local chamber will continue to be relevant even if it changes, executives said.

The best thing any chamber — large or small — could do is be responsive when it's asked for change by their membership, Nikoloff said.

"You have to keep the communications open," he said.

Staff writer Jason Scott contributed to this story.

Click here to download a PDF map of Central Pennsylvania's chambers and the areas they serve.

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