Chamber of Commerce county map. | FILE PHOTO

Pandemic Forces Chambers of Commerce to Evolve

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Several chamber of commerce organizations throughout the Imperial Valley have spent the last year reevaluating the way they can better serve their members following a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Often recognized for their roles hosting popular community events like the Mariachi Festival Sin Fronteras in Calexico, the Honey Festival in Westmorland, the Carrot Festival in Holtville, and Cattle Call festivities in Brawley, among others, the local chambers of commerce have had to adapt to a revenue stream that no longer relies on these annual events since the pandemic shut down large social gatherings in March 2020.

A state and national levels, even at global levels, chambers of commerce have had to learn a new set of rules and operating standards.

El Centro Chamber of Commerce. | STOCK PHOTO

“COVID-19 has created both an opportunity and necessity for chambers of commerce to change. While none of the services currently offered are believed to be becoming redundant, the shift brought about by COVID-19 has increased interaction with a broader member base, and a move to online has made resources more widely accessible,” according to the “Chambers New Norm: Adapting to Business Needs Report 2020,” a publication of the International Chambers of Commerce.

“A side effect of the COVID-19 outbreak has been an acceleration in the evolution of businesses. Developments such as digital transformation and a focus on employee wellbeing — which have been discussed for many years and are at various stages of adoption — have now become essential to business continuity,” the report states.

Imperial Valley chambers, like many others throughout the country and the world, operate almost exclusively as nonprofit entities and have often financially relied on a combination of annual membership dues, private donations, some grant funding, and participation fees from their fundraising events.

As a result of the ongoing pandemic, at least two local chambers of commerce have closed their doors, while three have taken the opportunity to merge, one has launched rebranding efforts, and another has adapted to hosting socially distant events.

Chambers of Commerce Shutter for Now 

Brawley Chamber of Commerce office. | STOCK PHOTO

Although it covers the second-largest city in the Imperial Valley, the Calexico Chamber of Commerce was among those forced to shut down operations in response to the start of the pandemic last year.

“When COVID hit, all of our plans changed, and unfortunately we had to close the chamber,” Gil Acuña, Calexico chamber president said last month.

Although the changing face of the Calexico chamber was detailed in a story in this newspaper last month, Calexico was not the only organization in the Valley forced to cease daily operations.

The Calipatria chamber has also gone dark for the past year, explained George Prieto, Calipatria chamber president.

“We’re still not active,” Prieto said. “I hope we can get back to talking and taking care of businesses.”

The Calipatria chamber had some difficulty staying open prior to the pandemic, with efforts initially made in 2019 to reinstate the chamber following a hiatus in which it had disbanded from 2017-2018, Prieto said.

By 2020, the Calipatria chamber had planned to host community events that were initially proposed during their meetings to revitalize the chamber. However, once social-distancing measures were imposed to combat the spread of COVID, the chamber cancelled its events along with its plans to move forward with meetings, Prieto explained.

“We definitely want to continue where we left off,” Prieto said, “to try to hold meetings again, because the community has shown a need.”

As a result of their inability to operate during the pandemic, both Calexico and Calipatria chambers were not able to ask their members or their respective boards of directors if they were open to the idea of merging with other local chambers in 2020.

Merger Takes Place, More Could Be on Horizon

Holtville Chamber of Commerce office. | STOCK PHOTO

El Centro, Imperial, and Westmorland chambers of commerce were the only local organizations to approve merging into what they have named the Imperial Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, explained Bari Smith of the Westmorland Chamber of Commerce, who also serves as interim regional chamber committee chair.

“Once we get everything officially finalized and all of the paperwork submitted, we definitely plan on reaching out to the other chambers and sharing with them where we are at and invite them again to join,” Smith said during a March interview. “We truly feel like the ultimate goal is to bring all the chambers together, even if it’s at a later point.”

The boards of directors for each of the three chambers voted in favor of joining after polling their membership and reviewing financial projections provided by the Regional Committee, which included board members from various local chambers.

“It offers an opportunity for everybody to be able to bring together their unique members and unique resources,” Smith said. “That’s why we were excited to be a part of it.”

The regional chamber’s executive committee is composed of equal representation from each chamber, with two representatives from Westmorland, Imperial, and El Centro, Smith explained.

“They are working on the membership levels right now, and we’ll be launching that very soon,” Smith noted.

Although Westmorland’s chamber is entirely made up of volunteers, all current paid staff employed with the Imperial and El Centro chambers prior to the merger will be offered a position in the new regional chamber, she added.

Leading the regional chamber’s efforts will be the organization’s new chief executive officer, Daniel Sohn, who recently moved to the Imperial Valley from Florida.

“He has tremendous previous experience with a lot of governmental and legislative affairs experience, which we are so excited to be able to have to look into opportunities for businesses and really advocate on their behalf,” Smith said.

Sohn started as an employee of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce, with his focus set on the development of the Imperial Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce and under the agreement to transition to the role of CEO once the legal details of the new entity are finalized, explained Smith.

Sohn served as the legislative aide and chief of staff for several Florida state representatives and senators. His work at IVRCC will also be like his past role as the CEO at the South Florida Non-Profit Chamber of Commerce, which he led for four years, according to a press release.

In essence, the IVRCC will take on a more traditional chamber of commerce role that focuses on business advocacy and business-friendly legislation, rather than the role of event organizing that many of the smaller chambers had focused on around the region.

In the coming weeks, the IVRCC will be launching rebranding efforts to further introduce the merged chamber to local communities and businesses.

“The new regional chamber is an exciting and wonderful opportunity to unite together and grow beyond our city borders,” Smith said.

Some Chambers Remain Independent

Despite the benefits and potential influence chambers may gain from merging, the chambers in Brawley and Holtville have chosen to continue to operate as independent entities.

“We agreed that a regional model would be beneficial to our members and would support the business community with a strong collective voice,” according to a Brawley chamber board statement to its members in late October. “However, the financial picture of merging chambers does not provide convincing information or definitive indicators that a regional chamber is a viable financial proposition for us at this time.

“An analytical projection for the first year and a half of the regional model clearly indicated an operational deficit, which would subsequently require the use of and erode almost the entire amount of combined reserves available,” stated Brawley’s board in the statement. “In addition to the financial loss we would incur, the prospects of resuming pre-COVID event activities is dismal, making future income even more uncertain for the region.”

Throughout the pandemic, Brawley’s chamber maintained operations under the lead of Chief Executive Officer Katie Luna, who recently began a new position as the first executive director of the Imperial County Local Health Authority.

Ramiro Urias was named interim CEO.

“Due to the pandemic, we have been forced to think creatively about who we are and who we want to be and how quickly we need to do it,” Urias told this newspaper.

In response to the pandemic, Brawley’s chamber formed the Imperial Valley Business Recovery Task Force in 2020, which has provided the business community with information on securing disaster relief aid, new 2021 COVID-19 labor laws and has provided additional resources for employees and businesses navigating operations during the pandemic.

“The chamber industry has faced unprecedented times and over the past eight years there has been a shift and refocusing on the true purpose of a chamber, to be the voice of business by being a convener, catalyst, and champion,” Urias said.

By late February, Brawley also launched rebranding efforts to formally change its name to The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Brawley. With the change came a new logo and the retooled chamber will also roll out a new website, which will offer new accessible features that should be easier to navigate for both members and visitors, according to a press release.

“Rebranding is our chamber evolving along with our industry and refocusing on our purpose of being the voice of business,” Urias said. “We will be diving into issues that affect businesses and bringing solutions.”

Similarly, the Holtville chamber has continued to operate independently during the pandemic, having also opted out of joining the merged regional chamber.

“The Holtville Chamber of Commerce has a direct focus on our Holtville businesses,” said Rosie Allegranza, chamber executive director. “At this time, we have set a plan to focus on promoting and improving those businesses that operate or do business directly within our city.”

Allegranza did note that the Holtville chamber is open to possibly working with IVRCC and the other Valley chambers in the future.

“We plan to continue discussions related to participation in the joint chamber,” Allegranza said. “At this point it’s hard to say (if we would join in the future, but) never say never. We will re-evaluate down the road.”

Allegranza said the chamber also relies on membership dues and sponsorships “to remain viable,” but that “we support all businesses and people in our community whether they are members or not; of course we hope all businesses in our town become members.”

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