History of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce
The roots of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce reach back to the early 1900’s. The current corporation, however, was formally organized in 1972, and the chamber is entering its fourth decade of service.
The chamber has undergone considerable change over the years. As community needs have changed, the chamber has adjusted its focus to better serve these needs.
This brief history will trace the chamber’s first two decades and describe the course it has outlined for the decade ahead, but first, it is important to clarify just what a Chamber of Commerce is.
A Chamber of Commerce is a voluntary association of business people created to maintain and improve the marketplace. It is not a state agency. Funding comes from membership and service fees.
The first formal records of an organization of business were kept by a group of merchants established in Marseille, France in 1599. They had a meeting place (a chamber) for discussions on trade (on commerce) and named it the Chambre de Commerce.
Its purpose was to identify issues of common concern, to focus the group’s attention on these issues, and to make improvements no single merchant could reasonably achieve alone. The need for cooperation on economic issues was so clear in this country that there was a Chamber of Commerce before it was called the United States. A Chamber of Commerce was formed in New York City in 1768, eight years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Business people know that they must operate in a viable market. There must be people producing goods and services; and if people are going to live and work in the market place, the quality of life must be good. The Chamber of Commerce is the vehicle through which business people can pool their resources; time, talent and money; to improve the community on which they and their employees depend. The Chamber of Commerce is the vehicle through which businesses can identify new trends and conditions which will affect their ability to be successful. It is a place they can make adjustments in the face of economic change.
Before The Central Vermont Chamber
The Greater Barre and Montpelier Area Chambers of Commerce served their respective communities for decades. They served at a time when issues were local and action in the city had little effect on neighboring communities. They served at a time when it was rare for a civic leader to contribute time or experience to assist a “rival” community. They served their era well.
By the 1960’s, the economy of the region had undergone dramatic change, however. Decades of growth in the auto industry made it possible, even likely, that the people employed in one market place would reside in another. The sharp divisions between governmental boundaries were becoming blurred economically. Trade and commerce were increasingly inter-municipal, increasingly regional.
Although competition between Barre and Montpelier was fierce, there were also numerous economic and community issues that refused to be confined by political boundaries. Barre, Montpelier and surrounding communities had concerns which needed to be addressed on a regional basis. The chambers of commerce of Barre and Montpelier were merged to form the Central Vermont chamber in 1971. A new era of chamber history had begun.
A Difficult Road: 1970-1979
In the finest tradition of anticipating emerging trends and providing leadership for the future, the chamber was thinking regionally before there was widespread acceptance of the value in doing so.
Creativity and vision must be tempered by reality. Reality in a voluntary association like the chamber is that members are free to disassociate themselves from it, and many did.
Although the new Chamber of Commerce attempted to ease the transition by maintaining separate offices in Barre and Montpelier for several years, it could not avoid numerous resignations of members who felt their interests would no longer be served by a regional organization. The chamber’s consolidation of offices in Berlin in the mid-1970s prompted another wave of resignations for similar reasons.
The new chamber’s first decade was devoted largely to selling the concept that the communities of Central Vermont had a variety of common concerns which had to be addressed collectively and cooperatively if the individual communities were to prosper. Perhaps the achievements of the ’70s should have made the value obvious.
During the decade, the chamber successfully promoted tourism throughout the region. It launched the Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation. It played a key role in developing the region’s transportation system. And it implemented administrative efficiencies which would have been impossible in two separate organizations.
In the face of all its success, the chamber constantly battled the backlash of the merger, and barely maintained the same level of membership that had existed prior to unification. It had, however, set the stage for the 1980s, a decade when the cloud of parochialism finally began to dissipate.
Decade of Growth: 1980- 1989
As the importance of regional issues gained broader acceptance, the chamber embarked on a decade of unprecedented expansion. A concerted effort launched in 1980 nearly doubled the chamber’s membership. These new members provided the organization not only with an important financial boost, but also with a tremendous influx of volunteer energy and creativity.
In short order, the Chamber had begun regular production of the type of community information book that had helped attract Bombardier in the late 1970’s. It had printed the first four-color, regional travel guide. The Chamber began providing team consultation to business owners who sought to expand their operations. It offered the same consultation to prospective startup companies.
The Chamber launched Central Vermont Magazine, the first regional magazine in Vermont.
The Chamber initiated monthly mixers so that business people could become better acquainted with their peers. Through participation in grand openings and by conducting an annual business recognition dinner, the chamber helped make the public more aware of the contribution small businesses make to the quality of life in Central Vermont. It opened a regular dialogue between business leaders and state legislators through its legislative breakfast series.
The Chamber compiled economic and demographic data for use by decision-makers in business, government, and planning. In addition to these and other programs conducted by the Chamber, the association also cooperated with a number of other organizations on successful joint ventures.
By coordinating educational programs for teachers and students, the chamber helped bridge the gap between academics and employment. Working with the Friends of the Vermont Statehouse, the legislature and the Sergeant-at-Arms, the chamber was able to help open the statehouse to visitors on Saturdays during the summer months. Under contract with the city, the chamber began helping Montpelier welcome lawmakers to the community for each legislative session.
With the Barre Area Development Corporation and the Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation, the Chamber helped phase out the inventory tax in Barre City and Barre Town.
And in conjunction with five municipalities, the Washington County legislative delegation and numerous state officials, the chamber helped convince Governor Kunin to designate Central Vermont as an “economic growth center.” This designation saves local taxpayers more than $500,000 on their share of state highway projects.
Entering the 1980’s, the chamber invested less than $50,000 a year in shaping the region’s economy. By the end of the decade, the annual investment was more than $250,000, and the annual return on that investment was more than a million additional dollars in the region’s economy and hundreds of new jobs for residents.
Among the growing companies which had received information or assistance from the chamber were Bombardier, Ben & Jerry’s, Midas Muffler, and Karl Suss. More than a dozen motels and restaurants opened or expanded. Unemployment at the beginning of the decade had been twice the national rate. By the end of the decade, it was half the national average. Per capita income in the region had reached the highest level in history, and the average annual gain was far better than the nation as a whole. It truly was a decade of growth for the Chamber and for the local economy.
The Close of the Century 1990- 1999
One other achievement of the late-1980’s was a thorough and thoughtful look at the challenges which lay in wait during the 1990s. A committee of officers and past presidents spent nearly a full year analyzing the trends of the 1980’s, the current economic climate, and the prospects for the 1990’s. The recommendations were varied, but one central theme emerged clearly: the chamber must become an even more proactive advocate for business and the economy in the decade ahead.
The committee found that even the chamber’s most successful past initiatives would be severely jeopardized by growing public belief that economic expansion is an inevitable, unstoppable and undesirable force in the Central Vermont region. During the economic spurt of the 1980’s, many residents (and legislators) lost their sense of history. They forgot the double digit unemployment Vermont had suffered just a few years earlier. They forgot how hard it had been to make Vermont more attractive to employers. The strong economic climate was taken for granted.
While other political issues reaped the rewards of economic growth, development itself was all too often being viewed with contempt. Supporting business was not in fashion during the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. The chamber was one of very few voices for business, and the chamber’s planning committee concluded the organization had to provide even louder voice in the future.
Someone must remind local and state officials that business cannot bear all the costs of improving Vermont’s infrastructure and preserving its environment. The committee concluded that business people shared other Vermonters’ dreams for their communities affordable housing, ample employment opportunities, good schools and a quality environment.
They then defined the chamber’s overall mission for the 1990’s as follows. “The role of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce will be to serve as the catalyst between regional dreams and the regional reality.” The panel also concluded that making the dream a reality required strong public support for development rather than continued opposition to it.
In order to make the dreams reality, the chamber has focused its advocacy on the following areas identified in the committee’s final report, Blueprint for the Next Century.
- Employment needs of Vermont’s expanding resident population must be met by the creation of new employment opportunities.
- To provide housing and employment opportunities, there must be a positive attitude toward development, suitable sites for construction, the infrastructure to support them, and a more reasonable permit process.
- The region will need to create as many as 400 or more new housing units annually.
- Employment may need to grow by more than 700 new jobs each year.
- Employment growth is most rapid in the trade and service sectors. The public must become more aware of the importance of this employment.
- Local and regional planners must incorporate economic development in the planning process.
- Incentives must be offered to encourage regional facilities and services in order to maintain quality and contain costs.
- The depreciation of public facilities should be reflected in the annual operating expenses of these facilities.
- Local issues (including aesthetics and natural resource protection) in Act 250 review should be dealt with on the local and regional level.
- Technical assistance and permit advocacy should be available to developers.
- Duplication in the permit process must be eliminated.
The progress on these fronts is reflected in the Regional Plan and in the creation of the Central Vermont Economic Plan, but there is still much to be done. The new century will see a continuation of the chamber’s vitally important promotional programs. However, the organization will also need to address the fundamental issues regarding development more emphatically than ever. The chamber will work to see that public planning, regulations, and tax policies work hand in hand with promotion and development efforts – rather than undermining them.
Welcome to the 21st Century
Technology has driven the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce and is leading the way to the future. State-of-the-art hardware and software have certainly eased the routine day-to-day activities that The Chamber is engaged in. Importantly, our social media presence and web presence have made answers to questions a few clicks away. As we expand our on-line presence, we will be launching multi-media approaches to promoting our members and our region.
Beaulieu Place, our home office, has the beautifully equipped state-of-the-art Milne Conference Room and our Committee Room, both serving the community. Groups large and small regularly hold their meetings here. You can too. Contact us at 802-229-5711 to get information about the rooms.
Technology also helps us in our advocacy efforts as we are able to contact our elected officials instantly, and follow the goings on “Under the Domes” in Montpelier and Washington. This vantage point allows us to communicate with our members instantly and keep them abreast of important legislative matters so that they in turn can contact their representatives.
We connect with visitors electronically and respond to their inquiries instantly. Businesses looking for relocation assistance can readily access the information they seek that will help them to choose Central Vermont as the place for their new home.
We welcome your comments and inquiries. We’d like to hear from you. Connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We look forward to hearing from you.