On my very first day on the job as the president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, I had to field the most important question facing an organization such as ours in 2010.
A reporter covering the press conference announcing my hiring asked whether, in an age when social networking is growing at an explosive rate on the Web, there is a need for something like a local chamber of commerce?
Having recently left a 28-year career in the newspaper industry, the question sounded familiar. And the answer I gave in my new role as a Chamber leader wasn’t terribly different from the one I gave as newspaper editor. The Web changes the how of what we do, but it doesn’t change the need for it.
If the Bangor region is to realize its full potential, its businesses must thrive. And for those businesses to thrive, someone has to advocate for what they need. And who is best equipped to do that? Government? The press? Both, at times, are supportive of business, but each has a mission much broader than making sure employers and entrepreneurs thrive.
Business must have the means to advocate for itself, to say clearly and plainly what it needs to provide the jobs and resources necessary for the rest of our community to function.
The Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce exists to help the businesses in our service area succeed. Yes, sometimes — as was the case with the tax-reform ballot question — people within the business community differ on what will help the most. But the important thing is that the organization keeps the needs of business at the forefront. That’s the charge I’ve been given by our board of directors.
It should be acknowledged that some on our board felt strongly that the Chamber had lost its way in this regard. It wasn’t taking a leadership position when it came to economic development and advocacy. Nor, it was felt, was the Chamber doing what it needed to do to grow and be the resource that businesses needed.
Last year, the Chamber’s board undertook the difficult process of changing the professional leadership of the organization. When I was hired, it was made clear to me that things were to change, and that the organization needed to grow.
I can say confidently that over the past four months there’s been a great deal of change, and we are certainly growing. Some examples:
The Chamber staff has been completely reorganized. It is smaller and more focused. There is now an executive vice president who oversees day-to-day operations, allowing me in my capacity as president to focus more externally on economic development and advocacy.
At the same time, there is new attention being paid to internal controls, budgeting and our governance. This is difficult and ongoing work aimed at making the Chamber a high functioning organization that achieves excellence in everything it does.
We are adding programs and events. For example, our 2010 Business Expo, brought back after a six-year hiatus, was a huge success. We sold out the Bangor Civic Center with exhibitors and drove impressive foot traffic throughout the day, giving our members and other area business people a new way to connect.
We are growing rapidly, having added nearly 75 new members this year. We have teamed with Camden National Bank to give new members a 50 percent dues subsidy. That’s right. New Chamber members can join for half price through the end of this year or until Camden National’s program pledge runs out.
All of this change is being undertaken with a single goal in mind: to make the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce a more credible and effective advocate for area businesses.
There is still much to do. We’ve got to sharpen our programs, making sure they serve the needs of our members and the community. Our website is overdue for an update. And we’ve got to get the word out that the Chamber is an effective organization that delivers real value to its members.
But we are well on our way, and I would urge anyone who believes strong businesses and good jobs are the foundation of a strong community to come join us.
John Porter is the president and chief executive officer of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.