Chambers Evolving

Commitment To Community Remains Unchanged

With the emergence of networking groups and the growth of the Internet and social media sites, the local chamber of commerce is no longer the only game in town for businesses. Data shows in many cities nationwide, chamber membership is stagnant if not declining. Yet, for more than a century now, chambers have fostered economic vitality in the communities they serve and have been the trusted, unified voice for millions of businesses. As numbers all across southern Minnesota show, it’s a formula still working in this region. Chambers here bucking the national trend as businesses have found that membership in a chamber of commerce still appears to be a great return on investment.

This was certainly highlighted recently, with Greater Mankato Growth’s announcement of hitting 1,000 members.

“The Greater Mankato business community is a key driver of our marketplace and the accomplishments of Greater Mankato Growth, Inc. Analytics provide evidence that GMG members generally do better with double the survivability, two times the customer satisfaction and fans, and expand at four times the rate of non-members,” says Jonathan Zierdt, President & CEO of Greater Mankato Growth, Inc.

GMG is a regional chamber of commerce and economic development organization that Zierdt says exists to intentionally develop the regional center by promoting, supporting and serving as a catalyst for economic development through: business growth, retention and attraction; talent growth, retention and attraction; regional livability and advocacy of the marketplace.

As the numbers show, businesses in the region are certainly buying in to this concept.

“We are enabled to embrace opportunities to advance business for a stronger community because of our members, the regional marketplace, our integrated organization, staff and volunteers. We are delighted and proud to be in the top five chambers in the state for membership and serve every business we come in contact with,” says Zierdt.

Even in the outlying, more rural communities of southern Minnesota, chamber membership is growing. The commitment to the communities each serves is apparent.

In Le Sueur the chamber is up to 168 members, an increase of 18 from five years ago. In Fairmont, current membership is 300. It was at 275 in 2011.

“The Fairmont Area Chamber is a great resource for businesses looking to move into the area because we occupy a central position in the community that provides essential information, education, advocacy and networking opportunities,” says Margaret Dillard, president of Fairmont Chamber. “The staff and board have accepted the challenge to make Martin County a better place to do business, a better place to visit and a better place to live.”

Traditionally, chambers have offered members help in attracting business to the community, educational programs such as seminars and workshops, networking opportunities, as well as political lobbying on behalf of their members and their business community. This unified voice and representation of common interests is the foundation of chambers of commerce worldwide. However, today’s chamber is not what it was 20, 10 or even 5 years ago. And like most industries today, chambers are constantly adapting to economic, environmental, and technological changes. All with a goal of better meeting the needs of members.

Greater Mankato Growth is a great example of a forward-looking chamber, yet still holding on to the roots of such organizations. For example, GMG takes a more regional approach and has embraced use of technology to attract and retain members. GMG has and continues to build an online community for its members.

“Communication in a member-based organization such as ours is definitely a two-way street,” says Zierdt. “Technology allows numerous avenues for our members to reach us and vice versa; we are connecting with members via phone, email, web and blog posts, as well as social. However, building and retaining our regional memberships is more than just tweets and videos. It’s about making that human connection, shaking the hands of the doers and the makers, giving and receiving a genuine smile when you make a lasting connection with a new colleague. Technology attempts to but can never replace that.”

Cindy Lyon of the Blue Earth Chamber agrees those connections are key. She says member recruitment is a priority in keeping local chambers strong. “We have worked diligently since I started in May 2011 to renew dropouts, recruit new members and continue to gather new opening business to our chamber list,” says Lyon. “And it has paid off. We have gone from 132 members at that time to 160 now. We have a few that retire or close but new business is always ready to fill those empty spots and join the chamber. I am very proud of making connections with these folks.”

The Madelia Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau has certainly had challenges in 2016 as it was instrumental in helping the town rebuild after a fire destroyed much of its downtown. It can boast strength in numbers. In 2011 the Madelia organization had 80 Members and in 2016 they have 105.

“The Madelia Area Chamber provides opportunities and events to promote our businesses and organizations,” says Karla Angus, executive director of the Madelia Chamber of Commerce & Visitor’s Bureau. “Together, we’re shaping Madelia’s dynamic business environment by developing an attractive place to work, shop, play and live.”

Along with finding new ways to connect, collaboration is another approach embraced by the chamber organizations of today. In Blue Earth Lyons says the chamber works closely with other organizations that have a vested interest in the community. She says it is a win-win.

“As the chamber here we are more the “social” side of this,” she says. “That complements the work of the EDA/FCDC. We have become a good team the last few years.”

GMG has expanded its “team” over recent years. Greater Mankato Growth serves as an umbrella for Visit Mankato, City Center Partnership, and the recently launched GreenSeam initiatve. GMG is one of the only chambers in the country to offer such a structure.

Along with connecting and collaborating, chambers are taking a more active role in developing young members. For example, the New Ulm Chamber, which consistently hovers around the 350 mark, has the HYPE program. HYPE stands for Helping Young Professionals Evolve. The group meets on a regular basis, building a strong foundation for the business community there.

So, it’s a combination of technology and a personal touch that allows chamber organizations in our region to help businesses address big challenges like talent attraction and retention, and global competition in manufacturing and technology development.

Dillard says chambers of commerce, like the one she runs in Fairmont, can best be successful by continuing to focus on three main areas; provide good value to members and the broader business community, demonstrate excellence in governance and leadership, and build stronger communities.”


Complementing Chambers: Region Nine Is Another Asset

“Unlike a chamber of commerce, Region Nine Development Commission is a regional, governmental organization representing nine counties, 72 cities, 147 townships, and school districts in south central Minnesota.,” says Region Nine Director Nicole Griensewic Mickelson. “Region Nine is a partner in the development of the region through a variety of unique services based on the region’s needs. As a federally-designated economic development district, Region Nine leverages federal dollars to provide long-range planning, community development assistance, technical assistance, and a revolving loan fund program to strengthen the regional economy.”

Lisa Cownie

Lisa Cownie

Editor of Connect Business Magazine

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