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The Rise, Fall of Chamber Membership: Organizations focus on recruitment, community impact

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Membership totals for area chambers of commerce hit some high and low notes at the end of 2019, with a handful seeing some double-digit percentage movement from the year prior.

Most notable year-over-year change came from the Mount Vernon Area Chamber of Commerce, which grew 32% to 201 members in 2019, and the Ozark Chamber of Commerce, down 16% to 390 members.

The membership number changes are part of the constantly flowing economy, chamber leaders say. Business closures and relocations, as well as those choosing not to renew memberships, are all contributors to the decreases.

Still, leaders at the chambers say priority No. 1 is providing value for its members and impacting the community through its services, programs and annual events.

“If people are seeing we’re in the community and making a positive impact, then that’s more important to me than seeing a huge membership roll at the end of the day,” said Ozark Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Anna Evans.

In Ozark, Evans attributed the loss of 75 members last year to a purge of its membership rolls.

“We are basically becoming more stringent to who is an active chamber member,” she said. “We really started emphasizing that more last year.”

Evans said roughly 70% of the members that were dropped were no longer active and paying dues. The majority was contacted by phone, email, postal mail or a combination of the three, and staff never received membership renewal or a drop notification, she added. She declined to identify any of the businesses.

Almost all of the remaining businesses either closed or relocated, Evans said, citing VIP Medical Services as an example when it closed down last year.

In Ozark, annual chamber membership fees range from $195 to $2,750, with an active member being defined as one with dues paid in full within 12 months. According to its website, the highest fee includes top-level participation for advertising and recognition at all chamber events.

Mount Vernon’s chamber hit a new high in 2019, when membership crossed the 200 threshold, said Director Pam Dudley.

“It’s been an incredible ride, that’s for sure,” she said, adding the membership total was at 135 when she started at the chamber four years ago.

“We showed them a value for chamber membership.”

Dudley said she’s very active posting about members on the chamber’s Facebook page, which has jumped to over 2,300 followers from 400 when she was hired. That has fueled membership growth, along with personal visits she makes to businesses to advocate for the chamber.

“The chamber is way more visible than we have been in the past, mostly social media,” she said.

Budget impact
Growth in membership has been a driving force in the increase of the Mount Vernon chamber’s annual budget to its current $120,000, Dudley said. The budget is twice as much as it was in 2015. Membership fees range widely, $100-$4,000, based on sponsorships and ads, and she said revenue from dues was roughly $37,000 last year.

In Ozark, membership dues are a bigger component, representing nearly half of the chamber’s annual revenue, Evans said, declining to provide the sum. The remainder is primarily generated by event income.

New members are on the rise, Evans noted, with 50 joining the Ozark chamber in 2019, up from 43 in 2018. In addition, 43 ribbon cuttings were held last year. She expects the active membership to build on that momentum and soon rise back above 400.

One of those new members from last year is Magnolia’s Market & Boutique LLC. The Ozark retailer had an August ribbon cutting after opening in January 2019.

Bobbi Ligon, who co-owns the business with her daughter, Heather White, said they joined the chamber in July after staff visited their shop. Finding available time to attend chamber events, however, has been a challenge, she said. The two women are the shop’s lone employees.

“We still felt it was important and could help our business grow more if people knew we were there,” she said of joining the chamber.

Unique space
The Springfield and Branson chambers of commerce are by far the largest in the area, according to SBJ list research. As of December 2019, membership in the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce was 1,550, followed by 930 for the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau. No other chamber has more than 500 members.

Both chambers in Springfield and Branson saw mostly flat membership growth in 2019. Springfield recorded an 1.8% bump, while Branson rose by 2.4%.

Growing membership numbers is an industrywide challenge, said Andrea Sitzes, executive director of nonprofit Show Me Christian County. Sitzes preceded Evans in the Ozark chamber leadership role, which she held for three years before starting at Show Me Christian County in 2018.

“When you deal with chambers the size of Ozark – and even Nixa falls into that same type of category – they’re in a very challenging and unique space,” she said, adding there’s an expectation for chambers to host social and networking events, but also be involved in big business to champion community growth. “You wear both hats, so to speak.”

Whether behind the scenes or publicly, chambers of commerce advocate for the business community, no matter what its level of financial support and event participation, Evans said.

Sitzes said chambers are in a unique position of having equal access to government entities, school districts, businesses and the general public.

“Membership as a whole, when you look at what a chamber provides to the community, it’s a model where chamber and economic development align,” she said. “They sit in a space that no other organization can fill.”

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