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Commerce groups find roads for survival

Four years ago, with only $43 in the bank, leaders of the New Kensington Chamber of Commerce were considering shutting down or merging with a larger chamber organization.

John Ciesielski asked board members to give him a chance to keep the organization local.

“We just refuse to give up what little we have left,” said Ciesielski, who serves as chief executive officer for the group. “We have a handful of members that have worked to put this thing into a positive sense, and we’re doing extremely well with it.”

The chamber now has more than $100,000 in assets, and membership is up slightly.

“I would say we’re doing very well,” Ciesielski said. “We’re under budget. Our membership is up, and we have money in the bank. And we never had that before.”

While more and more small, local chambers are merging with larger, regional chambers of commerce, others have decided to stick with it through difficult economic times and the shrinking base of local businesses.

They see local chambers as a way to directly impact their town. But others see larger chambers as a more effective way of networking among businesses and serving as advocates on a state or national level.

More than 70 chambers of commerce operate in 10 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said Barbara McNees, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

“My philosophy on that has always been they would not exist if their membership, business leaders, financial supporters did not see a need for them,” McNees said. “They are there based on the support they receive. They must be filling a need or they wouldn’t be there.”

The Greater Pittsburgh chamber works to advocate for businesses in a 10-county area, usually lobbying on issues at the state and federal level.

But a chamber of commerce is different things to different people.

“There’s a saying in the chamber of commerce business, ‘If you’ve seen one chamber you’ve seen one chamber,'” McNees said. “There is a uniqueness to everybody’s operations.”

So while McNees’ group focuses on the bigger picture, organizations in New Kensington, Oakmont and Verona concentrate on their local communities — and that’s how they like it.

But it’s not easy to keep a local chamber going.

“Your big mass merchants, the big box stores, they want nothing to have to do with the chambers of commerce,” Ciesielski said.

The Oakmont Chamber of Commerce found itself in the same predicament as New Kensington a few years ago.

Four young businesswomen took over when membership had dropped to 70 and the chamber had little money.

“We’ve been building ever since and now we have 160 members,” office manager and Vice President Diane Hulton said. “We’ve really come a long way, but it takes a lot of work, and you have to have a lot of people who are really committed to the chamber.”

The Verona Chamber of Commerce considered merging with the larger Allegheny Valley chamber a couple of years ago but decided against it.

“We stay more community-oriented here only because we’ve had some very smart people back in the 1950s that put some things together that pretty much enables us to stand on our own,” President Kevin Ewing said.

The Verona chamber has been working on not only promoting the town but keeping it clean — painting welcome murals and planting trees.

“We have a lot of problems that the other older communities do have but we continue to push whatever efforts we can to make the town better,” he said.

But often, smaller chambers join forces to maximize their reach.

About 10 years ago, a small chamber that represented Murrysville, Delmont and Export joined the Westmoreland Chamber, which already served Greensburg and Jeannette.

“I think years ago the chamber was one thing, but today I think it’s another,” said Tom Sochacki, president of the Westmoreland Chamber. “I think networking and being able to get your company’s name to more and more people is important.”

The Westmoreland Chamber has offices in Greensburg, Jeannette and Murrysville.

“I don’t believe in pulling everything to one area,” Sochacki said. “You still need a physical presence.”

But he thinks more chambers will be looking at merging — even to the county level.

“That might be the way of the future to cut costs and get more services. That may be the way we have to look at things,” he said.


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