As many of you may have recently read, the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce is in exploratory mode. Much like the intro to Star Trek, we too are “boldly going.”

Last week our executive board was invited by The Shires of Vermont Regional Marketing Organization to a meeting with former Manchester Chamber members and business leaders from the Northshire to discuss the current situation in Manchester and the future.

As the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber closed its doors a couple weeks ago, The Shires of Vermont organization reached out to the Northshire and Southshire to address short-term and long-term needs arising from the loss of the Manchester Chamber. At the meeting, two main items were discussed. First, the Bennington Chamber wanted to help in any way possible with the situation in Manchester.

We're Vermonters first and Vermonters help their neighbors in times of need. Namely, this help would be assisting with the immediate needs of the business community, whether answering phones, setting up a temporary welcome center for visitors, maintaining the Manchester website, or whatever is required. We will be working with state, regional and local agencies, including our staff, to organize this help. Beyond that, a larger idea was explored: the concept of a single unified regional chamber of commerce. We know the old model of localized Chambers of Commerce is in trouble. While we are currently in good shape financially in Bennington, it makes sense for us to explore new ideas for moving into the future, and doing it regionally is a good idea. Other chambers and regions have recently combined forces to maximize their resources and assets with success.

A Case for Change We think the future for many membership organizations like chambers will be to consolidate resources, combine efforts and act regionally. If you look all over, whether in the Capital Region of New York or the Berkshires, there is a strong case for change among Chambers. The chamber model has to work smarter, faster and better. Vermont and the Shires have historically been home to pioneers and inventors of new things; we think we owe it to our ancestors to try this out.

A Compelling Vision Some of the excitement behind the idea of a unified chamber is around the assets that the region has to offer as a whole. With a regional approach The Shires of Vermont combined create a very attractive destination. The Shires offer an authentic Vermont experience, with lakes, covered bridges, theater and art destinations, museums, an airport, both large and small lodging establishments, dining experiences, conference centers, golfing, ski mountains, and many festivals. Various industries of business including manufacturing, government, start-ups, health care, education, professional services and technology make a well-rounded portfolio of commerce and working jobs in the region. Indeed, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (or alienating ourselves from becoming something more!).

If we were to pursue a single chamber, it would be in the context of creating a new model with Manchester, Bennington and the satellite towns being equals, with equal representation on the board to ensure that the needs of all are met. This is a bold idea. If it works, we would become the second most influential chamber in the state based on membership, footprint, resources and assets.

Coming out of last week’s meetings for exploration of this idea is to convene a Shires summit of key community leaders in early June to further explore the idea. Is there interest? Is there support? What would be the next steps? The Shires RMO will organize the event and will start by inviting key individuals and community leaders to the summit. Interested groups, businesses, and individuals are welcome to contact The Shires (info@theshiresofvermont.com) to make sure they are represented.

Steps Moving Forward After the June summit, an action plan will unfold that would create a structure (work group) to explore the possible options and models of creating a regional chamber. This represents a great challenge, but an equally great opportunity. Know that the Chamber board including my staff and I are faithfully sensitive around what we owe our current membership and the due diligence to do this exploration effectively. It is our commitment that this remains one of our core focuses. That being said, this is a unique opportunity and in the best interest of our future; we think we should explore it.