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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

A New Model for Local Chambers

February 15, 2013

There was a time when most chambers of commerce offices across northern Michigan simply handed out maps, postcards and tourist information to those stopping by a small town and held a yearly annual dinner honoring special community citizens and business contributions.

“Not true anymore”, reflects Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce President Carlin Smith recently telling a local college state and local government class his group has changed since its founding in 1920. The North Central Michigan College class met him at a Petoskey downtown location to linkages between citizen and governments, as well as channels of citizen influence.

Smith says when regional unemployment rates began reaching record highs and manufacturing began abandoning northern Michigan at a rapid rates, community leaders started looking at their chambers to help shore economic development, which meant advocating a “business friendly” climate message to state and federal lawmakers. Smith said his chamber membership and others realized one community could not do it alone.

“We’re now bigger than Lansing, Detroit and Kalamazoo,” he said when it comes to mobilizing between 6,500-7,000 northern Michigan businesses to make its voice heard in Lansing and Washington, D.C. through its Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance. The Alliance was formed in 2004 when Traverse City asked the Cadillac and Petoskey Chambers of Commerce to hire a part-time recently retired Michigan Bell Telephone customer relations manager to find shared political interests. The group now includes eight chambers after the Charlevoix, Benzie County, Gaylord and Lake Superior partnership (Marquette) joined to hire a part-time professional advocate.

“Michigan’s business sector continues to turn the corner toward recovery, and in 2013, it will be critical to build on the momentum of the past years,” wrote Doug DeYoung, who now heads up Government and Business Advocacy for the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, in a recent Traverse City Record-Eagle guest column.

“We want to help our business sector remain strong and create jobs by strengthening manufacturing production, expanding regional farming efforts and continuing funding for tourism and promotion. Better workforce training and Early Childhood Development funding also are needed.”

Smith and DeYoung say the approach has been working as the Alliance is becoming a“go-to resource” for state and federal legislators as they host networking events in northern Michigan, Lansing and Washington, D.C., to help lawmakers and others better understand regional needs.

Recent state reports support their claims, as unemployment figures show increases for the majority of Michigan’s regional labor markets. Employment continues to slowly climb from 8.6 to 9.6 percent in the Northeast Lower Michigan market and in Northwest Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, while falling in the state’s other 17 major labor market.

Traverse City Area Association of Realtors also report housing sales are up 26%, as well as values in their five-county region of Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Antrim and Kalkaska for 2012. Gains in housing sales and values were also reported by Charlevoix and Emmet county Realtors, too.

Late November, Alliance members gathered in Traverse City to review the groups guiding principals of making it easier for businesses in northern Michigan to remain profitable and strong in the region, while promoting infrastructure and transportation investment and workforce education and preparation for future business needs.

The group set these top legislative priorities and supporting points for 2013:

  • Education—Equitable funding for northern Michigan Schools and continued reforms in curriculum with additional funding and access to workforce training based on northern Michigan company needs following an Early Childhood to 20 model.
  • Infrastructure Investment—Energy generation and transmission to create access for our region to reliable and affordable energy, as well as continued funding for road construction along with regional broadband connectivity.
  • Regulatory Reforms—Changes to regulations concerning liquor control and DEQ permitting and timing process.
  • Help business sectors remain strong and create jobs with reduced regulations and taxes to retain and attract industries and entrepreneurs to region.
  • Sustainable funding and expansion for regional farming without threat of undue and excessive local ordinances or state regulation to grow and process crops and get them to market.
  • Establish a permanent and consistent funding source for the “Pure Michigan Campaign.”
  • Consistent and sustainable funding for the arts and culture that includes expanding the “Pure Michigan” campaign to include that sector as an important component of the region’s workforce and quality of life that attracts businesses, entrepreneurs and visitors to be competitive in the new economy.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

February 14, 2013 · Filed under Winter

11 responses so far ↓

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  • 2 Chamber power // Feb 15, 2013 at 10:27 am

    I don’t know that working as an alliance is necessarily a new model. SE Michigan has been doing it for a long time and you see Lansing-GR-Detroit doing it on key legislative issues.

    I do agree that chambers need to be more than extensions of the visitor and tourism efforts. They need to be vocal advocates of their local business community – like they were initially created to do.

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