On the Beat: The importance of a community’s chamber of commerce

The solopreneur existence that I’ve carved out for myself as publisher of a hyperlocal digital news site involves a lot of hard work. The job description includes writing, website design, advertising sales, marketing and accounting and it’s a challenge to fit it all into a work week with manageable hours.

One area that I’ve tried to pay attention to revolves around networking. It could be assumed that I have a certain comfort level when it comes to interacting with others with 35 years of experience conducting interviews and shooting photos. But I’m often awkward in general conversation, very awkward if public speaking is involved.

Through those several weeks that led up to the Philomath News launch, I read business startup books, participated in online seminars, referred to old notes from a business class I had taken and had a handful of virtual sessions with a SCORE mentor (these are retired executives who volunteer their guidance and expertise to business owners).

It all went into the playbook that I devised to start a digital news business. The to-do list that I created is still updated and consulted includes ways to network — to just get the Philomath News name out there while working with other business owners to promote our community.

COVID has disrupted networking opportunities for the most part but I’ve moved forward to join two organizations that I feel can benefit this business venture — the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce and LION Publishers.

To me, joining the chamber seemed like a no-brainer. Through these years of covering Philomath, I’ve gotten to know the chamber’s leadership very well with coverage of the Samaritan Awards, wine walk, Trunk-or-Treat and the tree-lighting celebration. I’ve made it out a couple of years to “Philomath Day” with the Corvallis Knights and used to squeeze in occasional appearances at the monthly chamber luncheons, which are currently on hold because of the virus.

Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce sign
Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The predecessor to the Philomath chamber — the Philomath Commercial Club — appears to date back to 1912, at least on what I could find in newspaper archives.

“A genuine red letter day in the history of Philomath was Tuesday (March 5, 1912),” claims a story in the Corvallis Gazette-Times. “The immediate occasion of the day’s program and general enthusiasm was due to the preparations for the organization of a commercial club.”

C.C. Chapman, secretary of the Oregon Development League, was a guest speaker of the program and after his address, an effort was made to attract charter members.

“In a few minutes, 75 names were secured, and the meeting closed amidst great enthusiasm in the confident hope of a new day for the town and community,” the G-T reported.

“The business houses of the city were appropriately decorated with flags and bunting, which gave to everything an air of a patriotic holiday. Citizens and visitors wore ribbon badges of the Oregon goldenrod color on which was printed ‘Get-Together Day, Philomath, Oregon, March 5, 1912.’”

I did find references to a commercial club in Philomath even earlier in 1908 but it’s unclear to me whether or not it had any sort of formal organization. Further research in the old Philomath newspapers of the day would probably shed light on the origins and maybe the chamber itself has historical documents that tell the story.

The commercial club and chamber of commerce appeared to come and go through the years. I’ve come across a few stories about the Philomath chamber being reorganized apparently after a period of going dark.

For example, there are references to a Philomath chamber in the 1930s but it apparently ceased to function during the World War II years. A man named Howard Lutz, who had been “a mainstay in the old chamber,” reorganized the group in 1946.

Eighteen years later in 1963, a story was published about the Philomath chamber being “reactivated” with Bill Carter, manager of First National Bank’s Philomath branch, as president. Directors were meeting weekly at The Frontier, membership dues were $15 a year and one of the decisions at the first meeting was to enter a float in the Philomath Frolic parade.

These days, Alyssa Lewis serves as the president of the Philomath chamber board. Shelley Niemann is the director. The chamber has a group of ambassadors that specializes in welcoming new businesses to the community and providing various types of assistance. They’re often flanking new business owners in those ribbon-cutting photos I used to take in pre-COVID times.

A few years back, the chamber reorganized a Greeters program, a way for business owners to build relationships and show support for the community. They rotate the networking events at different businesses but as with everything else, they’re on hold because of the virus.

One of these days, I’m sure the monthly chamber forum luncheons will resume. The get-together represents not only a networking opportunity for business owners but features speakers with interesting topical programs. Philomath High students of the month are invited to the luncheon and recognized.

The chamber hasn’t completely been silent through these past months. Niemann regularly sends out emails to members with updates on the latest Benton County infection rates and how that impacts businesses. She also organizes and passes along information about what grant and loan opportunities are out there that could help a business survive the pandemic. In December, the chamber distributed free personal protective equipment.

Yes, joining the chamber had to be on my to-do list. Another organization I recently joined is called LION Publishers. LION is an acronym for Local Independent Online News and it specifically offers support to digital-only news publishers.

This type of networking is within my own profession and it’s all virtual with things like a private Facebook group and a Slack group with members-only channels. We can exchange ideas and share information about successes and failures.

LION even has its own annual awards — I actually quit entering contests years ago because they seemed like a waste of time with more important matters to tackle but maybe I’ll throw in some entries when those come up later this year.

The organization also hosts LION Lessons with various experts sharing insights on running independent news businesses. They even have someone who will do a social media audit and give personalized, actionable recommendations to consider. Pro bono legal services are also in the package.

So even though I spend a lot of time sitting at a desk all alone on the second floor of our home, there is an extended network of others like myself out there for support. It doesn’t replace the banter with co-workers in a news office, but it’s good to know they’re there if needed.

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