Newry selectmen wary of Chamber of Commerce
After declining to designate a town official to serve on the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, Newry selectmen last week cited both time constraints and concerns about the impact of economic development promoted by BACC on the Bear River area of Newry.
The board did, however, agree to meet roughly twice a year with BACC representatives to discuss issues.
A month ago, town officials showed little interest in a query from BACC about having a municipal representative on the Chamber Board of Directors.
Last week BACC Executive Director Robin Zinchuk attended the selectmen’s meeting to talk to them about communication.
“If you don’t want to have specifically a board seat, I’d like to explore ways to have a more regular dialogue,” she said. “I think the Chamber board feels the things we do benefit each of the towns, but we’d like more dialogue about what you think the Chamber’s role could play to help Newry advance future business growth, etc.”
She said that earlier this year, participation by area selectmen in a forum on strategic planning for the Chamber’s future had been beneficial, and the Chamber would like to see such interaction more regularly.
She also said the strategic plan drawn up by the BACC had established a short-term objective of playing a more active role in economic development in the area.
Having representation on the BACC board, she said, “doesn’t obligate the town other than getting a better understanding of the things the Chamber board is hoping to do. As a Chamber board member you have a seat at the table, where you can interject your thoughts, your feelings based on what you notice issues are to the people who you’re serving.”
Selectman Brooks Morton was skeptical.
He said he read the Chamber’s strategic plan, and “I was trying to find a place where it came right out and gave a plan. There’s a lot of fancy words and beating around the bush. But I couldn’t see anything the town could really grab a hold of as far as what their involvement, how it would benefit the townspeople.”
“A big thing that runs through [the plan] is to capitalize on ‘quality of place,’” said Morton. “Could you be more specific on how that will be integrated into the overall plan?”
Zinchuk said the term “is only in that one short-term objective. It means this place is a place people either want to stay or live in, or the thing that draws people here. When somebody is choosing to relocate their business and move here and become a customer of all of our businesses, they’re coming here because of the place. .. It’s a special quality that this place has, and that really is what’s our competitive edge. People can choose to be anywhere, go anywhere on vacation, open a business anywhere, and if they choose here it’s because of the place. That’s why we use those terms.”
Replied Morton, “Anytime I hear you speak that comes out of your mouth. I realize you’ve been involved in a lot of state planning things, through the quality of place, that whole best practice for enhancing quality of place through regional landscape conservation of Maine – that study you were involved in in 2008. That’s where I draw my definition of quality of place, are the things that have been written on the state level, that have filtered down here. I’m still not sure quite what you want from the town other than funding.”
“No,” replied Zinchuk. “It’s having a dialogue with somebody from the selectboard so that you can understand what kinds of hopes and aspirations we have as an organization to serve the people of the Bethel area … We want to bring people who want to open businesses. We want to make sure that the people who live here have work. That’s what a Chamber of Commerce is all about.
“It goes to show that what you might perceive the chamber is about, and I’m about personally, and what we actually do …there’d be a better intersection of those things if you had a more regular dialogue with us rather than sitting, assuming that we are about certain things, or I’m about certain things. I’m about the economic health of the area, that’s what Robin Zinchuk thinks about every day.”
Selectman Chair Wendy Hanscom said that regarding participation on the board, “the biggest issue is we have limited resources here, people. So we have to be careful how we invest our time … It’s where we want to invest the four of us [the selectmen and Town Administrator Loretta Powers].
Zinchuk then asked for suggestions for the best way to encourage better understanding and dialogue. “What are you comfortable with?” she asked.
“What I’d be comfortable with – keeping the town government separate from the Chamber of Commerce,” said Morton. “If you have any issues with the town or questions for the town, you’re welcome to come any time … If there are any specific projects you feel the town should get involved with you can approach us then. It would help if you were a little bit clearer in the presentations you give to the community. The strategic plan was kind of confusing to me, it seemed like it jumped around. If you have any clear plans, that’s what I can react to. I can’t react to something that’s written like this.”
Zinchuk said an executive summary at the beginning of the plan “encapsulates” what the plan is about.
“I read it,” replied Morton. “I don’t think the town should belong to the Chamber, bottom line.”
“Only so much room”
Selectmen Gary Wight offered his perspective.
“I think you already have businesses in town, like the Skiway, most of the restaurants - they probably belong to the Chamber … People on that side … that’s where the businesses are. On this side, people are just more laid back. They want to keep it that way. Whether or not they want more businesses on that side, I can’t answer that. You say you want to bring more people in - there’s only so much room to keep bringing people and businesses. A lot of people bought the land, and that’s the way they want to keep it. They don’t want to be crowded out. That’s my feeling. You’ve already got members from the town, in a way.”
He said that e-mails from Zinchuk to Powers that she can pass along to selectmen “are fine. And maybe once or twice a year get together and rehash things. That would be my opinion.”
“I’m good with that,” said Zinchuk.
Responding to Morton’s concerns, she said the strategic plan had resulted from a long process, and the BACC is just starting to put “meat on the bones. Maybe that’s where you find it confusing. You don’t really see any forward action as a result of the process. I think it will become clearer as we move forward into 2013.”
And, she said, “It’s not just about us coming and asking you for stuff. It’s to have a dialogue … It’s for you to say Bear River has always been the more quiet side, the more wide open spot. But there are people over on this side who are trying to make a living too, or work at the businesses on the other side, or in Bethel. It’s about prosperity. It’s not about crowding people out.”
Wight looked to the past to explain his feelings.
“We’ve had so many special places that were just our special places, but now you can’t even get to them … I’m not saying … It’s not all the Chamber. These places get advertised. The more people find out about them, the more word gets passed around.
“I think that might be some of it too, why we’re kind of scared to put more input into stuff. All your childhood places you used to go … you can’t do that anymore without having umpteen million people … You can’t really go and do the things you used to do, or take your grandchildren because a lot of things that happened at some of these places, because of more people.
“I know the Chamber is good and has a lot of good things. It probably does for the snowmobile industry, too, and brings people in. I can see both sides of it. Unfortunately there’s a lot of us on this side who kind of want our personal things left the way they are. There’s only so much room on the Sunday River side, and eventually it’s going to spill over.”
Zinchuk acknowledged that the Chamber has brought more people to the area.
But, she said, “Every place has changed. That’s life, that’s progress. Will some people not like that? I know, it’s really a hard balance. We do what our Chamber board and members want us to do. We are trying to do what we do better, to benefit more people.”
She concluded, “So we’ll get together with you once or twice a year, and chat about it.”
“Sounds good,” said Hanscom.
Greenwood and Bethel
The next evening, Zinchuk met with Greenwood selectmen. Town Manager Kim Sparks said the selectmen were open to having her serve on the BACC board, pending the process involved to approve members.
She said her selectboard is interested in economic development. “Greenwood is interested in revitalizing its Main Street,” she said.
In Bethel Town Manager Jim Doar said Tuesday he had been approached by Zinchuk, and he then talked to the chairman and the vice-chairman of the Bethel Board of Selectmen.
“There isn’t much interest in Bethel on having a seat on the Chamber board,” he said. “We agree we need to have more conversations about economic development and what role the towns should play, but the Chamber board isn’t the appropriate forum for it.”