Midcoast chambers moving toward merger

Posted April 18, 2010, at 10:40 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — At first glance, the effects of the sour economy were hard to see Saturday when members of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce donned suits and evening gowns for an evening of indulgence at the Samoset Resort in Rockport.

Appetizers stuffed with lobster, tables and chairs decorated like beauty queens and a jazz ensemble for after-dinner dancing defined the evening, though below the surface, the Chamber is an organization in transition.

Talks are under way between the Penobscot Bay Chamber and the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce to merge into a single entity with a combined membership of more than 1,100.

Last year, the Penobscot Bay Chamber’s board of directors, facing slack revenues tied to the suffering economy, opted not to replace its executive director after the position was left vacant. Since January 2009, longtime employee Shari Closter has been serving as interim director, including her central role in Saturday’s awards dinner.

“The two organizations do a lot of collaborating anyway,” said Closter. “We’re trying to build on that.”

The two Chambers attempted to merge about three years ago but that effort was unsuccessful. The difference this time is that process is being driven by the membership and not “top-down,” according to Dan Bookham, the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber’s executive director.

“The key is to make this a ground-up process,” said Bookham, who was one of more than 300 guests at Saturday’s 85th annual awards dinner. “This is a much more inclusive process.”

Leaders of the two Chambers have been working toward a merger since February. Closter said the goal — if members agree — is to merge the two groups over the next several months, creating a new entity with a new name.

“This is a major strategic realignment,” said Penobscot Chamber President Everett Spear III in remarks to the gathering. “This is all about positioning ourselves to do some very important work on behalf of our members. This is a big deal.”

Several businesses and members of the midcoast community received honorary awards from the Chamber.

— P.J. Walter and Frank Isganitis, owners of Rockland’s LimeRock Inn, won the Beacon Award, which is given for attracting regional and national attention for the Penobscot Bay region. In addition to aggressive promotion activities online, Walter and Isganitis serve on several local economic development entities.

— The Methodist Conference Home, which Executive Director Lee Karker said is changing its name to MCH, won the Community Service Award. MCH oversees Knox County Meals on Wheels, Coastal Trans and a range of other social services.

— Bangor Savings Bank, which recently opened a new branch on Camden Street in Rockland, was given the Economic Development and Enhancement Award.

— Pen Bay Healthcare CEO Roy Hitchings accepted the Chamber’s Good to be Green Award for numerous recent projects related to saving energy, reducing solid waste and recycling.

— The General Henry Knox Museum in Thomaston was honored with the Heritage Preservation Award for its efforts at revitalizing itself over the past several years.

— Lux Butcher, owner of Mini Me Rentals and the Playroom, accepted the Innovation in Business Award for her kids-centered businesses in Warren.

— Boston Financial Data Services of Rockland won the New Roots Award for its strong new presence on Water Street in Rockland, where hundreds of employees now work.

— The Rising Star Award was given to Jared Cowan, owner of Asymmetrick Arts on Main Street in Rockland, for creating a vibrant gallery for local contemporary artists.

— The Chamber’s greatest honor, Community Person of the Year, was given to Peter R. Lammert of Thomaston. Lammert, an arborist by trade, serves on numerous local committees, including the Thomaston Board of Selectmen, but he is best known for his giving nature.

“I just want to share all the things I know and make life better,” said Lammert. “If you see something that needs doing, do it. If you don’t know how, learn how.”

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