The Grey Highlands Chamber of Commerce is seeking financial support from the Municipality of the Grey Highlands.
Councillor Tom Allwood, also the treasurer for the chamber, gave a presentation to council members at this week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, where he asked for $10,000 to help the chamber continue to support tourism and economic development in the Grey Highlands.
“What I'm proposing is that we continue with some sort of MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that supports the chamber's continued economic development, especially in the tourism area, and that the chamber continues to work as a partner with the Municipality of Grey Highlands to promote economic development,” he said.
The organization, a not-for-profit that represents local, member businesses, runs a number of programs for local businesses and entrepreneurs.
The chamber offers discounted, group rate insurance for its members, providing coverage for life insurance, short and long term disability, health, travel, and dental, as well as business overhead insurance.
It also runs business seminars, maintains online profiles of its business partners, and hires a student each summer to help with its operations.
“It's a membership-driven, donation driven, not-for-profit organization with no shareholder capital, so everything the chamber does goes back into the chamber,” Allwood said.
Due to its donation-driven model, the chamber has been facing sustainability challenges as it looks to maintain its Markdale office space and continue its operations.
Council members were generally in support of assisting the chamber, but had concerns about the organization’s viability moving forward and in what ways the money might be used.
“How do we quantify and essentially justify the money that is given to the chamber?,” Councillor Danielle Valiquette asked. “I understand that the chamber is a unique relationship, and certainly a valued one, but it is a large amount of money compared to what we give other groups.”
After Allwood conceded that the chamber saw 56 visitors over a previous 15-week summer season, Councillor Paul Allen questioned the value of maintaining a full-time office space.
“Fifty-six people over a 15-week period to me doesn't justify a full-time location,” Allen said. “I'm not saying I don't think we should support the chamber, but I feel that any money that we do give to the chamber is spent wisely. It's ratepayers’ money and for it to go to pay Hydro One or Enbridge or Union Gas is not, in my opinion, good use of the money.”
Michele Harris, Grey Highlands’ director of economic and community development, stated that chambers of commerce commonly struggle with sustainability issues.
“I can tell you that membership organizations across North America struggle with membership, especially in downturns in the economy, when that sort of intangible value of membership always gets questioned,” she said. “I think the chamber model, which is well over 100 years old, is probably struggling with relevancy across North America.”
Council members suggested that the chamber might move to a pay-for-service model, or that they might forego a permanent, physical location for their services, in attempts to evolve and meet their sustainability issues.
“Quite frankly, the chamber can’t exist in its present mode without municipal support,” Allwood said. “The way the chamber say, in Owen Sound works, you’re looking at 600 members at rates that some businesses might not want to pay.”
He also argued that the chamber needs to maintain a physical presence in the community.
“It needs to grow, and part of sustainability and offering value to our members requires us to have a presence. And as we evolve out of this pandemic into a new normal it may change, it may require that virtual offices need brick and mortar space that can … provide meeting space for the days when people get back to face-to-face [meetings].”
Although the committee did not support granting the chamber $10,000 at that time, they moved for the chamber to prepare a business proposal outlining the purpose for the funds it needs, to be brought back to council.
Funds will be earmarked in the upcoming 2022 budget in consideration of their proposal.
Greg McGrath-Goudie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca