Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 21, 2014
Chamber of Commerce considers merger with Peninsula Chamber
Jean Wheeler, owner of Inn at Ferry Landing, expresses her interest in a potential partnership or merger of the Deer Isle-Stonington Chamber of Commerce and the Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
by Jessica Brophy
A dozen people attended a Deer Isle-Stonington Chamber of Commerce meeting on Tuesday, August 19, to discuss the future of the organization. That future could include forging a new chamber entity with the Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber president Henry Borntraeger opened the meeting by sharing a few facts about the island chamber’s current status.
“We have been dwindling in numbers and in funds for the last 10 years,” he said. “We hired a director five years ago and that turned into a fiasco. We have the lowest [chamber] dues around, and people complain about the dues.”
Membership in the island chamber has dropped from 220 eight years ago to 92 today, he continued. What is particularly troubling, said Borntraeger, is that there are not enough board members. “We have five members, and half the time we can’t get a quorum. Most of us don’t have the time,” to take on big projects, said Borntraeger. These include the annual membership drive and the island guide.
Jean Wheeler, owner of Inn at Ferry Landing and who served on the board previously, said that when she joined the board in 1997 there were 13 members of the board, and that all of the board members and others in the chamber volunteered to coordinate events like the Fourth of July and other chamber activities. “Things were different then,” she said.
For many years, the island chamber board of directors has voted to refuse membership to non-island businesses. There has been interest from the peninsula chamber to collaborate or possibly merge. “The feeling has always been that if we’re not a destination, we’ll fall off the map,” said Borntraeger.
However, declining membership and challenges to the island chamber has led the board to reopen a dialogue with the peninsula chamber.
Johanna Barrett, the Blue Hill Peninsula’s new executive director, introduced herself. “I’m an economist by training, and I have a corporate background,” she explained. She sees a potential merger or restructuring of the chambers as “opening a door.” The peninsula chamber is implementing a new strategic plan, she continued.
“We direct a lot of people through our peninsula down here,” said Barrett. “If we can collaborate and pool our resources, that would be great.”
“I don’t have any problems consolidating if that means we’re going to survive,” sad Wheeler.
Borntraeger clarified that at the current level of funds, the chamber could operate for another three or four years, even while running a deficit.
Barrett Gray, owner of Boyce’s Motel, said that he had been a member of the peninsula chamber but dropped his membership because he felt the chamber did not reach out to him and make him feel a part of the organization.
Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce board member Greg Roraff said he understood Gray’s position, but the peninsula chamber is in the process of undergoing deep changes as well. “We’re moving our organization forward,” he said.
It is unknown yet whether the two chambers might merge, restructure as a new entity or enter an affiliation/partnership. Borntraeger said it’s important to hear from all members and to keep communication open.
Roraff said if the two organizations were to come together, he does not see the island chamber simply joining the Blue Hill chamber, and instead envisions a new structure.
There are many things to take into consideration, said Borntraeger. One of the concerns is that the island is not considered part of the Blue Hill Peninsula.
“Whatever happens, I hope it optimally serves the businesses,” said Stonington Selectman Ben Barrows. Barrows said while he is “agnostic” about names, he’s interested in robust outcomes. Barrows said that one of his major concerns is that responsibilities that were once the purview of the chamber are getting pushed onto other community groups or organizations.
Geoffrey Warner of Geoffrey Warner Studio said he could see the positive and negative side of joining the two chambers. “Things have changed in terms of the Internet,” he said. Many visitors to the area don’t consider the peninsula towns and the island separately, but rather as part of the same area. He said that for him, he would want to know that the existing information center on Little Deer Isle would continue.
“We’re struggling, they’re struggling,” said Warner of the two chambers.
Stonington Selectman Evelyn Duncan asked how membership dues might change and asked whether they would be apportioned according to town. Roraff said dues structure would need to be worked out.
“If this is going to work, we need to restructure the board of directors and the mission,” said Roraff.
Duncan said that if the island chamber is maintained, it would be important to keep in mind the chamber’s diminished power due to lack of membership and board involvement. “What would you be getting for your money?”
Borntraeger said he had heard from several members that they would be opposed to merger. One community member at the meeting who said she was not a member of the chamber said she thought the chamber was giving up “too soon.”
Wheeler responded that she didn’t think it was “giving up” so much as “expansion.”
Rebecca Daugherty of Isalos Fine Art said that she thought merging would be a mistake. “We have a great identity as the island,” she said.
Barrett and Roraff both stressed that their appearance at the meeting was not an attempt to sell a plan, but rather as a first step to communication. “You cannot over-communicate,” said Roraff.
Borntraeger said the board didn’t plan on jumping into anything, and would certainly be working more with the board and getting input from chamber members.
Communication about a potential partnership or merger will continue, said Borntraeger. In the meantime, the island chamber is seeking new board members, he said.
The Deer Isle-Stonington Chamber of Commerce next meets on Tuesday, September 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the Deer Isle Town Hall.