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In Transition

Knoble selected as the 2011
Madison Chautauqua poster artist

 

 
(November 2011)
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Don Ward

The Madison Area Chamber of Commerce is coming off perhaps its most successful year of holding the annual Soup, Stew, Chili and Brew festival on Main Street, despite undergoing several changes to the organization’s structure and events schedule that still has the nonprofit entity trying to get its footing.
In its ninth year, the Oct. 15 festival earned more money than ever from food, beverage and game ticket sales. That was achieved despite a drop in the number of booth from 27 to 20, according to chamber administrative assistant Lynda Knoebel.
But the festival’s success is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise troubled year for the organization. Board President Tony Ratcliff, co-owner with his wife, Laura, of the Ohio Theatre, predicted that 2011 would be a transforming year for the chamber during his acceptance speech back in January at the Annual Dinner. As he approaches the end of his one-year term, he says the year went “pretty much as planned, but there were some surprises.”
The biggest surprise was the degree of how much things changed, he said during a late October interview. “So much has happened that I’m sure it has been a little confusing to our members.”

Madison Area Chamber of Commerce staff

Photo by Don Ward

The Madison Area Chamber of
Commerce’s staff is finally in place
after several months of transition.
The staff consists of (from left) Lynda
Knoebel, director Corey Murphy and
newly hired Katie Wood.

The changes actually began occurring in late 2010, even before Ratcliff took office. They were triggered by the chamber’s physical move from Venture Out Business Center on the Madison hilltop to the chamber-owned office at 301 E. Main St. in downtown Madison, and the August 2010 departure of the chamber’s last Executive Vice President, David Collier. He left soon after the office moved to take a position at Hanover College. Rather than replace him, the board decided to do some soul-searching by generating a survey of the membership “to see what programs and services they wanted, and to try and determine which direction we needed to be going,” Ratcliff said.
The survey was circulated to members via the chamber website and emails. But as for filling any positions, the chamber opted to take the money and divide it among two part-time employees. Those posts were considered interim in duration and given to Margo Watkins and Linda Wood. Knoebel, Watkins and Wood managed the day-to-day operations and membership services for several months – up until the last week of October when a full-time assistant was hired. Katie Wood, a recent graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University who has been teaching at Ivy Tech Community College, stepped into that role on Monday, Oct. 24. Prior to that hire, the Chamber spent several weeks collecting applications and interviewing candidates for a “Chamber Manager.” But then the board decided not to hire a Chamber Manager.
“There was some confusion over the title of “Manager,” Ratcliff explained. “What we meant was to hire someone to manage programs, not people.”
Now the newly hired Wood and Knoebel will be managing the office under the direction of Corey Murphy, who became their supervisor when the chamber merged last summer with the county’s economic development office, Economic Development Partners of Jefferson County.
That merger of staff was a complicated one and took place only after the boards of both agencies agreed to accept consultant Tom Ticknor’s recommendation that the two organizations join forces to save money. Ticknor, an independent economic development consultant based in Illinois, has worked with several other chambers of commerce in Indiana and he is highly regarded, according to Ratcliff. Ticknor reviewed the results of the chamber survey and other economic factors in an effort to streamline the operating costs and missions of both agencies. He recommended they share staff and resources to be specified in a contract to be created between them. The two boards approved the plan last June.
The two agencies’ boards, financial books and missions remain separate, however. Murphy, the executive director for EDP, now directs the chamber staff via the contract.
In fact, Murphy moved from Madison City Hall into the chamber office during the last week of October. With him came Kathy Huffman, who directs EcO-15 in Jefferson County and serves as the Work Force Manager for EDP. Funded by a $38 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant, EcO-15 (Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015) provides job-enhancement educational programs associated with manufacturing, healthcare and hospitality-tourism in 10 southern Indiana counties, including Jefferson.
The two-person United Way of Jefferson County, staffed by co-directors Larry Cummins and Sheila Coffin, in turn, moved to City Hall, essentially trading places with Murphy and Huffman, who had been located on the second floor.
Through all of this flux with the Madison Chamber, membership has remained relatively steady, after having fallen off some when the economy first dipped in late 2008, according to Knoebel. The chamber currently has 363 members, which is up 5 percent from the beginning of the year, according to Ratcliff, but down from the all-time high of 410 before the market downturn.
By comparison to nearby chambers, the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce reports its membership level has remained steady at 115 members this year, said administrative secretary Bret Calhoun. In Oldham County, Deana Epperly-Karem, the executive director, reports membership at 415, which is up from 395 at the beginning of the year but slightly below the pre-market downturn high of 420. The Oldham Chamber has set a goal of reaching 430 members by the end of this year, she said.
Madison Chamber members also have seen many changes in programs this year that may have been confusing. Consider these changes:
• At the beginning of the year, the chamber announced it was moving its major fundraising event the Tele-Auction, from March to late October. But by the time October arrived, the event was cancelled. Ratcliff said it is a difficult event to pull off that requires lots of volunteer time. He said the chamber board also wanted to “modernize” the technological presentation of the event, so it decided to cancel it this year and perhaps revive it next year. No date has been set.
• The annual chamber golf tournament held each May at the city-owned Sunrise Golf Course has barely broke even financially, according to Knoebel, and is tentative for next year, she said. No decision has yet been made about continuing it in 2011.
• WIBBY (Women in Business), a once popular monthly luncheon meeting for women in business, also has not been held on a regular basis in 2011, but the chamber recently announced it is bringing back WIBBY meetings.
• The monthly After Hours networking parties also have been held sporadically this year as opposed to monthly. “Whenever a business wants to host an After Hours event, we are happy to organize one,” Ratcliff said. In fact, an After Hours event was held in late October at a local law firm that also served as a political candidate “meet and greet.”
• The chamber’s annual Small Business Expo and Awards Presentation, usually held in November, has been postponed until next March. Nominations are being accepted, however, for the 2011 Small Business Person of the Year and Family Owned Business of the Year. But the actual presentation of these awards will not take place until next spring. Plans are still being worked out on what type of event this will be. Murphy met with leaders of chambers of commerce in Carrollton, Ky., and Scottsburg, Ind., in late October to discuss the possibility of creating a regional business expo sometime next year.
One bright spot has been the success of the Madison Future Young Professionals group, which was created under Collier’s direction and has continued to flourish in membership and activities for those in business aged 40 and under. Collier continues to serve on the chamber’s executive board, along with Ratcliff, Phillip McKay of McKay Accounting and Kevin Watkins, the chamber’s past president and owner of Pets Doc Veterinary Clinic. McKay will step into the role of president in January.
The chamber also has been successful in providing programs to allow local political candidates a forum for discussing their platforms for election to local offices.
The Chamber’s next regularly scheduled event is the Annual Dinner, set for Jan. 25 at Hanover College’s Brown Campus Center. Awards are presented and new officers installed each year at this well-attended reception and dinner function. New this year, Ratcliff said, will be a silent auction of items to be donated by chamber members. “It’s a new way to highlight our member businesses and their products and services,” he said.
“We realize we will not be getting the money this year that we would have normally raised from the Tele-Auction, but we want to put more focus on activities that give exposure to our member businesses.”
Ratcliff admits it has been what he calls “a rebuilding year.” He said the year has gone “pretty much the way I expected, but how they went was unexpected.”
Yet he remains positive, adding, “We have been in a state of flux the last three years. But it is a testament to our businesses that they have stuck with us through all of it. It’s a good boost of confidence that they believe in the chamber.”
But after seeing so many changes take place in such a short time, even Ratcliff and his fellow board members must be quietly wondering: “What next?”


• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: Don@RoundAbout.bz.

 

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