If you rebuild it, will they come back?
That’s the question local business leaders are asking themselves as they plot a comeback for the , an organization that has for the better part of the past year because of a leadership void and a drop in membership.
The city’s (BAB) and a number of local business heavy hitters hatched a new three-year plan late last month to revive the chamber. They hope a volunteer-driven campaign can prove its value as an advocate for business interests at City Hall and as a marketing engine for local businesses.
Making that case to the business community is vital in stimulating membership and the much-needed revenue that comes with it, they said. Member numbers have fallen to as low as a couple hundred of the approximately 2,400 licensed businesses in Mill Valley, though chamber members have been reticent to provide exact figures. The plan calls for getting membership “up to least 600.”
“This is the chance to save the chamber after a year of weak leadership and poor performance,” said Mill Valley Vice Mayor Garry Lion, who served as an ex-officio member of the chamber board but resigned in frustration in March.
The group plans to relaunch the chamber officially in January, with a few holdovers from the past chamber board, several BAB members and a few local stalwarts like 's Paolo Petrone and 's Doug Canepa forming a board of at least a dozen people, according to BAB chair Paula Reynolds.
The lion’s share of the group’s energy will target advocacy, with a pair of board members tracking the goings-on at City Hall and speaking up on behalf of local businesses. That need was rarely more evident, Reynolds said, than in the , which with as high as a 143 percent increase on their just-received property tax bills.
“We weren’t part of the conversation early enough to influence that,” she said. “But that’s where the true value of a chamber lies.”
The group also wants to find ways to do targeted marketing, citing the success of the BAB’s Enjoy Mill Valley Facebook page, which has generated nearly 800 Likes. Beautification is part of that marketing effort as well, and the group hopes to partner with organizations to find ways to upgrade the look and feel of commercial areas.
Suzanne Burrows, who joined the chamber in 2010 and has been serving as one of its leaders over the past year as board members dropped off, said she’s optimistic about the effort but that it will take doing a few things very well at first.
“A few early wins for the chamber in 2012 will really help show people what we’re up to,” she said.
Those focal points spawned from a number of focus groups with local merchants set up as a way to gauge what people wanted to get from a “2.0” iteration of the chamber, Reynolds said. The groups included 21 people representing a mix of businesses but leaning heavily on retailers and restaurateurs, including some who had let their membership expire over the past year as the and whittled down to a bare bones operation.
owner Ariel Englander is one of those people.
“I didn’t renew and I’ve been waiting to see what the next phase of this was going to be,” she said. “But the focus groups were very helpful.”
Englander said she likes the focus on advocacy and downtown beautification, saying she wants to see the host more events to generate a buzz around town.
Will Hutchinson, co-owner of the surf shop at Tam Junction, said although he’s maintained a membership in the chamber, he’s found it difficult to measure its value in the past.
“It’s hard to really quantify the benefit that comes from it and it sometimes hard to see it,” he said.
Hutchinson liked the idea of sending welcome kits to new homeowners in the area containing items from select chamber members as a way to market local businesses.
A key theme to emerge out of the focus groups was to avoid past chamber mistakes by not spreading itself too thin and maintaining a sharp focus, Reynolds said.
“They just had their energy all over the place and had taken on the mindset of a social club and a charity,” Reynolds said. “But it needs to run like a business and make sure the audience gets what it needs and wants.”
Running the chamber like a business also means finding more potential revenue sources, and the plan calls for “tiered membership pricing” and “fee for service” programs. The chamber just released a free map of Mill Valley featuring the names and logos of member businesses, Lion said.
The group also plans to expand the popular , a regular major contributor to the chamber’s annual budget of approximately $200,000. The event had enough success in June to keep it running during some dark days, according to Alan Abrams, a member of the chamber board since March and its representative on the BAB.
Business leaders said that while they are optimistic they can generate momentum for the new chamber, they aren’t kidding themselves that reinvigorating membership will be easy, especially with volunteers doing the heavy lifting while running their own businesses in a tough economy.
“The people on the board are really going to have to make a commitment to doing the hard work required,” Burrows said. “This isn’t going to be a sit back and watch what happens type of board.”
Reynolds said the group hopes to eventually hire staff again but knows that won't happen anytime soon.
“The only way to get to a point to pay any staff is to build up membership,” Reynolds said. “But I’m confident that the membership will go up significantly and quickly and that will hopefully fund future hires.”
A key question is what type of role City Hall plays in the chamber’s revival. The city ponied up $35,000 to fund the BAB, a group that has birthed such programs as and efforts to . The city also has contributed to the chamber in a number of ways over the years, including free use of the chamber’s tiny office in the city-owned building that also houses the , as well as city staff support for events like , which business leaders plan on having again this year.
“I’m in favor of activities we would do in parallel with the chamber but I don’t want us getting involved in underwriting their operating costs,” Lion said.
Reynolds said the new chamber had to prove itself to the city as well as potential members.
“They need to see that businesses are stepping up and organizing themselves into a coherent, functioning business service,” Reynolds said. “I’m confident that there will be visible signs of city engagement.”
As one of the few chamber holdovers involved in the campaign to revive the chamber, Abrams said he’s excited for a new chapter.
“For several months it was really close whether we were going to be able to stay alive,” he said. “Now it’s about watching our pennies and paying off all our debts and putting a lot of old things behind us.”