Chambers launch economic booster programs

The Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce puts major energy into a new "buy local" program that focuses on business owners.

The Carson City Chamber of Commerce encourages its members to get even more involved in mixers, ribbon-cuttings and other chamber functions as a way to generate more sales.

And the North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce looks for ways its members can share knowledge with one another to boost their business acumen.

Throughout Northern Nevada, chambers of commerce both large and small are launching new programs and putting renewed energy into existing efforts to help their members weather the worst economic downturn in 70 years.

And chamber executives say they're scrambling because the same downturn that increases demands for chamber of commerce services also is cutting into the revenue from memberships that funds many of their programs.

"Buy local" programs are among the tools that chambers are developing.

In Douglas County, the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce has developed a program it calls "WHOLE" - for "We're Helping Our Local Economy."

Participating businesses commit themselves to making their business-to-business purchases locally, commit themselves to making their consumer purchases from local businesses and pledge to provide competitive pricing and excellent customer service, says Bill Chernock, the chamber's executive director.

The Sparks Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, developed a "buy local" program in conjunction with Lotus Radio, which heavily promoted the campaign on its five Northern Nevada radio stations.

Chamber-sponsored networking events also are getting renewed focus. Businesses that host the events can showcase their services, and participants can scout new business contacts, says Lynn Tackman of the Sparks Chamber, which has increased its networking events schedule to one or two a week.

Ronni Hannaman, executive director of the Carson City Chamber of Commerce, says business owners shouldn't underestimate the power of networking.

"Ours is a city where personal contacts make a big difference," she said. "Those who are attending our networking breakfast club and mixers plus ribbon cuttings are reaping benefits and their business is growing."

Educational programs - particularly free ones - also are getting renewed attention from chamber of commerce members who want to sharpen their skills.

The North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has provided seminars at which bankers who are members of the organization provide information on lending products. Executive Director Steve Teshara says the chamber continues to develop similar free seminars.

"It's people helping people," he said. "And it has taken on accelerated significance."

Networking events and other chamber events also provide an opportunity for business owners and managers to swap tips in an informal environment, Teshara says.

While the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce believes more educational and networking opportunities are important to help businesses weather the recession, the organization also has focused on big initiatives.

Tim Ruffin of Colliers International, who chairs the chamber's public relations council, says the group believes one of the most important tasks it undertook this year was an aggressive lobbying effort during the Legislative session.

That lobbying, Ruffin says, protected businesses from higher taxes and increased regulatory hassles - both of which could be killers during the economic downturn.

Chamber executives say they're boosting their programs even as some of their members struggle to pay their dues.

The Carson City Chamber, for instance, has developed a payment plan for members who can't afford to write a single check for their annual dues.

"We are trying to make it as easy as possible for our members to retain their membership," Hannaman says.

But chambers of commerce, like their members, feel a financial pinch.

"It's as tight as it could be," said Chernock at the Carson Valley Chamber. "It really makes you step back from the superfluous stuff and focus on the basics."

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