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A Conversation With ... Sharon Whitehill Gray
, Features Editor
Wednesday, July 18, 2012 6:42 AM
: Nixa Area Chamber of Commerce
: President/CEO, since 2002
: A native of Hutchinson, Kan., Gray has lived in Nixa since 1976 and describes herself as “a full-fledged graduate of the school of hard knocks.”
What is the role of the chamber in the Nixa community?
It is to promote growth and development of business that will enhance our community as a desirable place to live, work, shop and play. We concentrate on expansion and retention of our local businesses. We know that quality of life is important, and we know that we are kind of a melting pot for our community. The foundation of our chamber is putting a face with a name. People like to do business with people they know – and our membership has added “and like and trust.”
What are the demographics of your membership?
We’re around 500 members, and about 83 percent of our members are zero to 15 employees, and 67 percent are zero to five employees. We are a bedroom community of Springfield, although we do like to refer to ourselves as the master bedroom of Springfield, and about 17 percent of our membership is from Springfield. Around 70 percent of the people who live in Nixa work outside the county, and a lot of those are in Springfield, so what we always say is, if you live in Nixa, have a business in Nixa or want to do business in Nixa, you should be a member of the chamber.
You’ve added about 45 members in the last year. How has the economy affected membership levels?
We were at 500 members in 2008, when the economy took a dive. Nixa lost its largest “employer” when the economy tanked. We didn’t have a big empty building or empty parking lot, but our biggest employer was the construction industry. We went from more than 600 building permits in a year to, within two years’ time, down to 45. (Because) 70 percent of our population works outside the county, our daytime population is low, though we’ve built it up some. The construction industry brought in daytime population, which created revenue for businesses in the Nixa area. When those jobs left, it (was) a huge hit on many small businesses … and some of them closed.
What’s an example of a chamber program or initiative to support business members?
About four years ago, we started a campaign, Be Vocal 4 Shop Local – Bring Back 5%. Our challenge to everybody was to look at what they were spending outside their community – and because we’re an area chamber of commerce, we did not say, “Shop Nixa first,” but just, “Look at your community and what you’re spending outside of it, and bring back 5 percent.” What’s spent in a community goes around seven times. The “be vocal” part was to talk about doing business in Nixa (and) your community. It makes a bigger difference than just doing it, because you’re encouraging those around you. At every one of our general membership luncheons, we do a spot called Be Vocal 4 Shop Local Stories, and people stand up and talk about a business they’ve done business with. Our city sales tax was up 9 percent last year (and) we like to think our campaign with everyone’s participation made that possible.
What type of events does the chamber present?
Nixpo is held the first quarter of each year, normally in March, and it is our biggest event of the year. It’s a time when businesses and organizations can showcase themselves to the community. It’s not necessarily business-to-business, it’s a business-to-community showcase. This was our 17th year (with) our highest number of exhibitors. We had 152. We don’t charge (attendees), but we usually estimate 2,000 to 3,000. We have general membership luncheons the second Tuesday of each month (with) 130 to 160 in attendance. We also have Working Women in Nixa, with 50 to 60 attendees (and) a program each month. And we have Exceptional Businessmen in Nixa, and that is … a mentoring roundtable (and networking group).
How does the chamber help members address challenges?
One of the biggest challenges for our members is for them to be able to stay up-to-date on technology. What we’ve done is (add) lunch-and-learn [sessions] that introduce (technological) topics in a small-group setting that’s led by someone who’s a specialist in their field, normally a chamber member. The one we have coming up (July 20) is on cloud computing.
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