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Chatham Chamber of Commerce Crusade Criticized
Austin Wright, December 6, 2007

Comments questioning this article have appeared on another local website. A response and clarification was posted (inserted below), and the Chamber was contacted to provide additional information. They have not responded to date.

The Chatham and District Chamber of Commerce has recently moved into spiffy new headquarters in downtown Chatham. Along with the changed address on their letterhead, they decided to update their name to the Chatham-Kent Chamber of Commerce. Chamber leaders assert that the change was made to allow them to effectively lobby government on behalf of the entire municipality.

However, this reinvented mandate has been strongly criticized by the other four Chambers of Commerce that also represent business interests in Chatham-Kent. Leaders and members of these Chambers are livid that the Chatham Chamber has commandeered their area of responsibility. The general public is weighing in with widespread condemnation.

The existing Chambers claim that nobody from the Chatham Chamber bothered to consult them prior to rolling out the new name. Although they responded that there was no intention to step on any toes, the move has sparked controversy and fanned the discontent and Chatham/Rural divide that has lingered since amalgamation.

The leaders behind such a decision must have been completely out of touch with reality to even contemplate such a name change. Proceeding without engaging their rural counterparts in discussions goes beyond stupidity. Given the simmering disconnect that still exists ten years post-amalgamation, such a move could only be part of a calculated takeover of rural institutions which have served their communities well. Even the appearance of such an agenda plays into the hands of activists that already cite our dysfunctional council as rationale for municipal reorganizing

This is not the first time Chamber leadership has delved into questionable political policies. Despite claims that the Chamber is not a political organization, they have a knack for acting politically when it is inappropriate, and ignoring political involvement when it's justified. Such an identity crisis leaves membership perplexed and ineffectively represented.

Last year, the Chamber stepped into controversy during the municipal election when accusations were levelled that the venerable Chamber of Commerce election forum was not sufficiently transparent to the public. This sparked a movement to boycott the the Chamber mayoral debate, but instead of addressing concerns and adjusting the format, the Chamber dug in its heels and banned the press from asking questions directly. The boycott provided some mayoral candidates the opportunity to feign outrage at what they claimed would be a biased debate while protecting them from inconveniently discussing the issues directly with the public. As a result, the public was deprived of the chance to see the candidates in action until a hasty 11th hour forum thrown together by the local media, allowing some candidates to fake their way through the entire campaign by avoiding issues of substance.

In 2003, the most pressing issue for the Chamber was preventing Home Depot from building in Chatham. The Chamber was quite outspoken, and lobbied Council to reject the zoning application. Purporting to represent the entire 500+ membership, then-president Frank Saraka elaborated on the harm that the Home Depot proposal would cause to the community, paying particular attention to the negative effects anticipated for his Canadian Tire store. Many of the Chamber's rank and file members were not consulted about this position, and reported being in favour of the Home Depot development.

The Chamber has not been clear whether members were consulted over the name change, which will affect any business that displays Chamber membership logos on web pages, advertising, or other promotional material.

The Chamber's advocacy of local business has been questioned by member and non-member businesses alike amid allegations that the leadership seems more effective at looking after their own business interests than promoting the little guy. I recall an incident with my own business several years ago. While attending a Chamber Business After Hours event as an 8-year member, I had occasion to promote my business with Chamber leadership. I was told that the reason they were no longer patronizing Wright Photo with their personal and Chamber business was because Wal-Mart was cheaper. It did not matter to them that my business was a member that always supported local independent businesses, and provided better service and quality which made my input costs twice as high as big-box retail prices. However, these same leaders did not hesitate to solicit contributions and door prizes from my business, and would come in when they wanted free photo advice or petty unprofitable rush orders that Wal-Mart couldn't handle. Consequently, I cancelled my membership.

For some time, the Chatham and District Chamber of Commerce has been ineffective at defending members' business concerns while dabbling in politics inappropriately. The new name encompassing all of Chatham-Kent is a continuation of this group's ill-advised myopia.

Chatham-Kent has an Economic Development department that is mandated to champion business interests for all of Chatham-Kent. It is important that the individual communities that comprise Chatham-Kent have local organizations that can advance each community's unique business concerns. That authority should extend to promoting the community to prospective new businesses. Some friendly competition amongst communities attempting to attract economic growth would be a good thing. Rural communities need more local representation, not less. This calls for a close working relationship between all the Chambers, and the municipal government. Communities without a Chamber of Commerce should be able to form their own advocacy group to represent local business. Instead, the Chatham Chamber is providing ammunition to those who claim Chatham gets everything, and only Chatham's interests matter, while the politicians sit idly by twiddling their thumbs.

This failure falls squarely in the lap of Mayor Hope, who despite all his smiling photo ops, has made no concrete attempts to bring this municipality together and put divisive issues into the incinerator for good. His residual mistrust against the Chatham Chamber from his campaign days has likely done little to promote the concept of teamwork for the best interests of everyone. A leader needs to put past bickering behind them and do what needs to be done for the greater good of everyone he serves.

If the mayor had bothered to take an interest in the community affairs that aren't so pretty for the cameras, and conducted some dialogue with organizations and business leaders instead of holding personal vendettas, this latest blunder by the Chatham Chamber could have been averted. Hope's closest advisers have long articulated the problems with the Chamber of Commerce, so there is no excuse for being blind-sided. Political accomplishments happen at the meeting table, working with others, a drudgery presumably avoided so far by Hope.

Mayor Hope, after one year in office of doing nothing of substance for this community, it's time to roll up your sleeves for real, put your petty vengeance aside, and get to work. Leadership by provocative sound-bites has never proven effective, and Chatham-Kent desperately needs some leadership capable of achieving consensus. As Mark Twain once said, do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

Reply #1 on: December 20, 2007, 02:07:05 PM

Thanks for presenting another opinion on the Chamber trouble. Send it with appropriate attribution to my web site and I'll present it.

I do not claim to be perfect, but I like to be accurate, and it's nice to see people concerned about local situations. If the Chamber responds to my inquiries, I will post a correction. Perhaps I'm guilty of relying on too many published "facts" myself.

My position is that, despite amalgamation (which I fully accept at this point), each community needs an advocate at the local level. The Chambers of Commerce, being there already, seemed like the appropriate organization to further business interests in each community.

The issue isn't that the Chatham Chamber wants to expand its influence. Kudos to anyone that effectively advocates for local business. It's the unilateral decision to expand lobby efforts for the entire municipality without consulting the other Chambers that has caused the problem, especially when there are still divisive grumblings going on. The Chatham/rural divide certainly does still exist, as evidenced during any public meeting in, say, Bothwell, Ridgetown, Blenheim, or any other place outside Chatham.

As a candidate for mayor, I attended the council debate over Home Depot. The presentation by Home Depot lawyers (which I thought was heavy-handed and insulting to us) made it clear that it was the Hwy 40 site or nothing at all. The Chamber strongly opposed the application, perhaps without the solid consent of its membership. The motion before council was to permanently deny the application, and the tie vote on this was defeated by Mayor Gagner. Only then did Home Depot get another chance to apply for zoning the next year. So I stand by my allegation that the Chamber tried to prevent Home Depot from coming. Same semantics.

It's interesting that I agree with other members of the business community on this issue, but it's likely for opposite reasons. There is a faction that wants to revisit amalgamation, and I would speculate that this would never happen unless we had a dysfunctional council, communities pitted against one another, biased media, uncontrolled spending, 6.8% annual tax increases, proposals to close rural libraries, pools & fire halls, and general discontent within the municipality. It makes you wonder...
 
 

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