Chambers Face Financial Crunch

The Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce typically collects its dues in the spring.

That hasn’t happened this year.

“Traditionally [in March, April and May] we would have gotten about 75 to 80 percent of dues to support us throughout the year,” said Executive Director Darcie McCann. “It went down to a trickle.”

“The figures are still coming in, but it’s going to be a significant decrease in cash flow.”

They’re not alone.

Chambers of commerce across the region are running on fumes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed businesses, canceled fundraisers, and disrupted local economies.

Doing more with less, they must help North Country and Northeast Kingdom communities dig out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

“We’re going to have to be innovative and brainstorm how we can survive this,” McCann said.

Chamber organizations offer a wide variety of services to local businesses. They promote them, support them, organize them, connect them, educate them, celebrate them, and advocate for them at the local, state and federal levels.

Now, that work is more urgent.

“This is like nothing we’ve ever experienced before,” McCann said. “We have to do what we’ve done well in past, and do it that much stronger and better going forward.”

It’s not just the pandemic.

In April the Northeast Kingdom Chamber joined a statewide effort — banding with sister organizations in Lyndon, Morrisville, Randolph and Stowe — to save NVU-Lyndon, NVU-Johnson and Vermont Technical College, which generate 700 jobs and $150 million in annual economic impact. They bought the schools another year, but those efforts will continue.

“We’re working with [chamber organizations] in the areas most affected by NVU and VTC,” McCann said. “Our five chambers are working really hard to get the message out that [the proposed school closures] don’t just affect higher education, they affect the regions and the state as a whole.”

In New Hampshire, Beth Cape runs the Northern Gateway Chamber of Commerce that serves 122 members in southern Coos County.

She is contracted part-time but typically works 50 hours a week. That’s in addition to running her own business, The Barron Brook Inn in Whitefield, which is preparing to re-open after a two month shutdown.

During the pandemic she has spent extensive time collecting information, boiling it down, and distributing it to Northern Gateway members. Her efforts have been appreciated, she said.

“I’ve received more feedback in the past two-and-a-half months than I had in the previous eight or nine years,” she said. “I feel like this is the year where [businesses] are like ‘This is why we’re chamber members.’”

Chamber organizations continue to provide member services — though webinars and virtual workshops and networking — while tackling COVID-19 concerns.

In a letter to members, Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Nathan Karol wrote, “[W]e have brought your stories of struggles, hope and North Country pride to the Governor and the Department of Business and Economic Affairs each week. We are advocating for the needs of the business community both at the state and federal level on an almost daily basis. We have found ways to give back, through the creation of our food drive partnerships, and are building additional educational resources to help navigate the current flow of information.”

“Optimistically, we have already begun to think about the recovery effort, and we will be at the forefront of creating partnerships, stimulating the local economy, and welcoming people back to our community when the time is right.”

Chambers will need cash to make it through.

Right now it’s hard to come by. In addition to a dues shortfall, chamber organizations have been denied federal CARES Act relief funds, due to their non-profit designation (they are 501C6).

That includes the Littleton Area, Northern Gateway and Northeast Kingdom chambers of commerce.

• The Littleton Area Chamber recently solicited donations to secure its future.

Writing to members, Karol said the 100-year old organization had been “hard hit” and needed financial assistance “to get through this unprecedented time.”

He wrote, “If each person receiving this letter gives $25, we will be well on our way to securing the future of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce and therefore securing the future of local and small business in the North Country.”

“If you can give a bit more, it will go further than ever before. If you are not able to give financially, but have ideas, want to volunteer, or want to find out other ways to help, please reach out to me directly for a conversation.”

• Northern Gateway remains afloat thanks to acts of generosity.

When they cancelled their annual dinner (and only fundraiser), they were allowed to keep most of the proceeds. Ticket and sponsorship revenue was applied to dues. Some donated in excess of their dues.

That and a $2,000 grant from the Tillotson Fund (through Affordable Housing Education and Development, aka AHEAD) has kept Northern Gateway afloat.

• The Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce has imposed strict cost cutting measures. It’s two staffers have slashed their pay. They have their fingers crossed that revenue streams begin flowing, whether its member dues or government aid.

Until then, they will continue to do their jobs.

“We will probably be working from home until our cash flow numbers improve. But we’ll still be working hard for our members,” McCann said.

“We are facing an economic tsunami like we’ve never experienced before, and I think we’re all trying to do whatever we can to ride out the storm.”

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