Sometimes, the helper needs help.
Chambers of commerce across Ohio have valiantly and courageously supported their local businesses ever since the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year. Help continues in many forms and degrees, including financial, marketing, information sharing and even moral support. Chambers have been there for those members who reach out and also for non-members at no charge. “We are in this together” is more than just a trite slogan to the organizations.
But, what many people don’t realize is that local chambers, as well as the Northern Ohio Area Chambers of Commerce (NOACC), an association of 126 chambers, have been basically on their own without much financial pandemic relief.
“Chambers have done all of this great work, while at the same time are not able to apply for any grant funding. They are registered 501(c)(6) organizations, not 501(c)(3) charitable ones,” says Cindy Holzheimer, NOACC president and CEO, located in Cuyahoga Falls. “After months of fighting for access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), chambers of commerce and other 501(c)(6) organizations gained long overdue access to federal support after Congress agreed to a new COVID-19 stimulus deal. The hope is that in-person events can happen again in the second quarter of 2021 so chambers that secure these loans are in a position for repayment.”
Businesses have been able to “take advantage of deep discounts in programs through their chamber’s membership in NOACC,” including health insurance premiums, worker’s compensation group rating programs, energy savings and shipping, according to Holzheimer.
Holzheimer says while all chambers are (c)(6) organizations, there are a few chambers that have (c)(3) foundations, and that her organization and others are studying the matter to determine if changes are possible. But, for the most part, chambers cannot take advantage of all of the same financial help offered to 501(c)(3) organizations.
In a letter sent to Gov. Mike DeWine this past fall signed by NOACC and 62 individual chambers of commerce, Holzheimer outlined her concerns about chambers’ grant eligibility. She wrote: “For those that rely on financing that is tied to accommodations fees or district sales taxes, the revenue drop has been precipitous, mimicking the steep decline in tourism spending, restaurant traffic and retail sales. With respect to chambers of commerce, businesses that are operating at just a fraction of their capacity, or worse, have closed, are the foundation of their income. Lost membership dues, events revenue and sponsorship funding have been devastating the bottom line for most chambers of commerce.”
Holzheimer says NOACC is doing its part to help local chambers by finding additional sources of revenue and suspending the collection of dues from its member chambers.
“We’re not taking from our chambers; we‘re trying to figure out how to add to them,” says Holzheimer. “Chambers are really getting creative and were able to get through 2020. But, a lot are really trying to figure out what to do this year.”
However, pandemic challenges have made both NOACC and local chambers even more resolved to help its members, particularly small businesses. That target group is especially important, says Holzheimer, as more people than ever realize how important it is to shop and eat locally and support their neighborhood merchants.
Greg Church is the executive director of the Greater Ashtabula Chamber of Commerce. Church claims one of the most important things he does throughout the pandemic in his leadership role is to remain positive.
“The hardest part for me has been the mental challenge. There is only so much you can do for a business, and when a business is hurting, it hurts me, too,” says Church. “It is very easy to get caught up in negativism. But, that doesn’t help anyone. Instead, we look at and learn from groups and businesses that have risen to the challenges.”
Church also set himself up as a “conduit for information,” and has become a “mini-expert” on questions concerning COVID-19 that his business members pose. He knows his research and willingness to share has paid off. Ninety percent of his chamber’s members renewed memberships in July.
Church’s own chamber was also hit by a pandemic-caused reduction of staff. The staff member in his office handling chamber events was at first furloughed and then decided to move on.
“I became a team of one,” says Church, who was recently named to NOACC’s board of directors. “We weren’t eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program. But, I was proud that we never thought of closing.”
Rachel Wynkoop, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Sandusky County, was also tapped to be a NOACC board member last year. Her local chamber has 335 members. Wynkoop heeded the call to serve NOACC because “sometimes chambers need as much help as the chamber members it helps.”
Her chamber cleverly used its own funds; they switched how they used the funds and bought gift cards from local businesses when things look pretty bleak last year.
“We had $6,000 to spend and bought $500 worth of cards from 12 businesses,” says Wynkoop. “That helped in two ways. First, there was the initial card purchase and then we gave the cards away. If you are like me, and you have a $25 gift card, you’re going to go to a business and spend $50.”
The Chamber of Commerce of Sandusky County has even longer-reaching ambitions and goals. The city of Fremont, the location of the chamber office, has created its first director of diversity and inclusion position. Wynkoop hopes to work with the director to encourage minority entrepreneurship within the city, create relevant educational programming and establish a minority scholarship to pay for chamber dues.
“NOACC is so proud of the chamber leaders in our membership,” says Holzheimer. “They have been providing such needed services for local businesses, have gone above and beyond to support their communities and shown amazing strength and leadership in the face of uncertain times.”
Some larger, countywide chambers have reserve funds and may not be hit as hard by COVID-19 challenges as smaller chambers, according to Holzheimer. But, she urges all businesses to join their local chambers, regardless of size. And, businesses who are already members are urged to pay their dues — even early if possible.
Businesses say a reward of chamber membership is not just an imperative networking opportunity; it’s also about feeling good and doing the right thing for an organization that has always been there for businesses with an open sign in their window.