Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chamber of Commerce getting back on its feet

Recent financial hardships have forced group to scale back, but members feel good about the future

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Rex Bickmore (right), president of the Rockville Chamber of Commerce, chat with Jeff Miller (left), president of ActionCoach in Rockville, and Mark Avallone (center) of Potomac Wealth Advisors, during a recent networking event. Bickmore said the chamber, which is reorganizing itself, is putting its focus on the needs of its members.
As the Rockville Chamber of Commerce picks itself up from recent severe financial challenges, some speculate the organization may be losing its presence in the community.

But chamber members say it is just a matter of time before the organization’s financial affairs are in order and the chamber can offer more programs and services.

Last December, the chamber eliminated its paid executive director position, then held by Debra Liverpool, due to financial constraints. Members have since reorganized their leadership into a group of volunteer members who each fulfill a different role of the executive director, from keeping members abreast of legislative issues, to social events planning, to representing the chamber at public events.

Rex Bickmore, executive director of The Musical Theater Center and chamber president, said the chamber is focusing its resources solely on meeting member needs as it pays back debt that has accumulated over the years.

‘‘We decided that because of the chamber’s situation, it was in our best interest to go to an all-volunteer management,” Bickmore said.

The chamber has made several changes in the last several months to save money, including moving from its office at 255 Rockville Pike in downtown Rockville to Intelligent Office, a private company that provides ‘‘virtual office space” with phone and mail service and use of conference rooms.

This was also the first year the chamber did not run the springtime Women in Business Conference, which is in its ninth year.

‘‘The program was big last year,” Bickmore said. ‘‘It lost a lot of money and we had to pull back. We cannot engage in anything that loses money because we owe money.”

Bickmore said the conference was one of several instances where the attendance and revenue was over-projected.

‘‘Decisions were made with an optimistic expectation of income,” Bickmore said.

Now, the bulk of any revenue that is generated by the chamber will go towards paying down debts, he added.

But things are looking up, members said.

‘‘All chambers face some hard times,” said Brian Barkley, an attorney with Barkley and Kennedy and a chamber board member. ‘‘But we’re rebounding and heading in the right direction now.”

The chamber is working to retain and recruit members through regular networking events.

Barkley, a former chamber president, said membership dropped in recent years for various reasons, one being a change in culture.

‘‘Chambers have been viewed as a way to market your business ... and now there are more ways to do that than there used to be,” Barkley said. ‘‘The Internet is a major way to market their business that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

Barkley believes that membership may get a boost from the revitalization of downtown Rockville and the influx of new businesses that are joining the chamber.

Others say the chamber’s decline in membership was symbolic of a change in Rockville’s business climate.

Chamber member and former president Helen Heneghan said the chamber has always been a voice for the small business community, but when more franchises came to the city and less mom and pop businesses, the chamber shifted its role to include more educational endeavors. It began hosting the Women in Business Conference and seminars on topics such as putting together a business plan.

Heneghan said the creation of Rockville Economic Development Inc., a nonprofit, public-private partnership formed in 1997 by the City of Rockville, might have diminished the role of the chamber.

‘‘Its function is really what a chamber does,” Heneghan said. ‘‘The functions are the same, but it’s supported by the city.”

REDI receives funding from the city for operating expenses, according to REDI executive director Sally Sternbach. Funds it raises from private businesses go toward hosting conferences, career fairs, sponsorships and cash prizes for the annual business plan competition.

Sternbach contends that REDI and the chamber are two separate entities with different, but much-needed roles within the city.

REDI represents the city’s voice to the businesses while the chamber serves as the voice of the businesses.

‘‘Is there need for a local chamber? Without question,” Sternbach said, referencing the business community’s need for business-to-business networking and representation on legislative issues, among other services the chamber provides.

REDI’s focus is on attracting and retaining business, specifically in the biotechnology field, to Rockville, Sternbach said.

‘‘Economic development is not a concept many people start their day thinking about ... it’s just sort of there in the background,” she said. ‘‘Chambers tend to be better known, so it’s not surprising if people confuse the two or think it’s redundant. And that’s OK.”

Meanwhile, Bickmore said he hopes that with an increase in membership and a decrease in debt, the chamber may be able to afford to expand its programs and hire an executive director and staff members by next summer.

‘‘Before it was a sense of trying to keep it together,” Bickmore said. ‘‘Now there’s a new sense of energy.”