Dual business groups tax some members’ time and finances
Wednesday, Oct. 22
Fauquier County's two largest business associations share similar goals, but some of their members question the need for two organizations, especially given the time and financial commitment of being active in both.
The Fauquier Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1921, claims 500 business members, while the Greater Warrenton Chamber of Commerce (GWCC), launched in 2009, represents 275 members.
The memberships of the two business organizations often overlap, as business owners fear alienating fellow businesses and potential clients and customers.
In addition to the two “chambers,” there's also the Southern Fauquier Business Owners Association, a smaller group focused on businesses in the southern most part of the county.
Both the Fauquier Chamber and GWCC host numerous activities monthly, such as member lunches and “after hours” activities. Add to that the numerous committee meetings, and events sponsored by the groups.
Active members in both groups find themselves bogged down in half a dozen or more meetings and events each month, to say nothing of the costs associated with sending staff to the luncheons, or paying sponsorship fees at both group's events.
However, those who chafe at the time and financial commitment do so quietly for fear of alienating themselves from either group. But particularly for smaller businesses with few or no employees, the time commitment is tough.
“It would make so much more sense if they merged,” said a Warrenton lawyer who asked not to be named. “There would be more harmony and trust in the local business community.”
The lawyer enjoys being a member of both chambers and tries to attend as many events as possible from both, but the schedules often conflict. The attorney also finds paying fees to be a part of two organizations to be costly.
“I wish we were one,” the law professional said. “I think we would be stronger and more united if we were.”
“I wish that there wouldn’t be this polarization. We are one, working for the betterment of the community and having two different organizations becomes a little divisive,” the attorney said. “There is strength in numbers and I have hope that we can become one.”
But there's not a chance of that happening, though, according to the leadership of both groups.
Bert van Gils, board president of the GWCC, said neither chamber has plans to merge any time soon.
“Every business organization has its strengths,” he said. “If you can take separate strong organizations and get them to cooperate, I believe they have even more strength.”
Van Gils said many counties have more than one chamber of commerce. When the Prince William County chambers merged, he noticed that many businesses that used to be members there started coming to the Greater Warrenton chamber.
“When an organization gets too large, some businesses can fall through the cracks and not get as much attention,” he said.
Part of the reason behind GWWC's creation five years ago was a disagreement among Fauquier Chamber members over the organization's vision, as well as a bitter personal feud between the then head of the Chamber and some board members.
“The first year it may have been a shock, no one predicted that we would survive,” said van Gils. “We’re not competing for people’s loyalties. There’s no animosity any more.”
Fauquier Chamber board Chairman Lynne Richman Bell, and President and CEO Joe Martin, both echoed van Gils position that the two groups would remain separate.
“The discussion is truly a sensitive one as we, the [Fauquier Chamber], organizationally have chosen not to discuss, prioritize or plan any kind of merger with the GWCC,” they said in a written statement.
They maintain that the Fauquier Chamber is open to collaborating with the GWCC for local activates and events. To underscore point, both groups will attend the ribbon cutting and grand opening of Golden Rule Builders' new facility in Catlett.
Martin said he was involved with the Prince William Chambers when they merged, but noted the situation there was completely different from that of the Fauquier business community.
The Prince William County-Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1935, and the Prince William Regional Chamber, started in 1955, joined forces in 2010 after the groups' members voted in favor of the merger.
“The reason for merging was to create a strong voice for business in the community,” said Debbie Jones, president and CEO of the combined Chamber. “The merger has been successful. We are really representing the whole county.”
“We are still a new organization, only four years into it,” she said. “We had little bumps in the road, but we are very optimistic as we move forward.”
She said the PWC's 1,600 members are happy to no longer face competing events and fees. The chamber is currently working on engaging members in looking at issues that businesses have with the organization and making improvements.
Liz Johnson, president of Mountain View Marketing, has been a member of the GWCC for five years and of the Fauquier Chamber for three.
She believes having two chambers is fine, noting that each has its own “vibe.” “Both are valuable and there is a different complexion in each one,”
Another member of both chambers, who asked to remain nameless, doubted a merger would work because of “deep seated resentment” between the organizations. A merger may cause members to quit, something neither group can afford.
“They are both trying to do the best they can and neither can afford to lose members,” the public relations professional said. “Perhaps it’s better to have two, because they are in competition, and constantly work to better serve their members in a free market model.”
Marianne Clyde, a marriage and family therapist, used to be a member of both chambers, but over the years she found herself more involved with the Fauquier Chamber.
“I soon realized that I couldn’t make it to every event, so I stayed with the one that I thought was most beneficial to my business,” Clyde said.
“It makes sense for them to merge, just because they are both constantly making people choose,” she said. “The whole point of having a Chamber is to help people make the best of their businesses, and to constantly make people choose between the two, it’s more distracting in my opinion than helpful.”
Even though they discounted the possibility of merging with GWCC, the Fauquier Chamber leadership acknowledged the need to “respect the time and resources” of members belonging to both groups, many of whom “will at some point feel stretched to capacity and begin to think in terms of how we all can be better served.”
“Until the members speak, the Fauquier Chamber will forge on with our plan to become the absolute best chamber we can be,” the statement said.
The GWCC's mission “is to help local businesses succeed … to improve the local business climate while sustaining our quality of life through government advocacy, business networking, education, assistance, and advancement programs.”
The Fauquier Chamber's mission is to be “completely focused on, and a resource for, the business, government and community interests of local businesses … through connectivity, education, access, leadership, communication and stewardship ... for the growth [and] enhancement of the Fauquier business community.”
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