Mixed reactions to Chamber membership proposal
The St. Paul and District Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Town Council held a public forum on Sept. 25 in an effort to raise public awareness of a proposal by the chamber to add a mandatory membership fee to the price of town business licenses.
The forum brought in a good number of people, whose opinions on the matter were varied, with everyone given opportunity to voice their concerns, problems, and suggestions on the issue.
At the beginning of the forum, Chamber President Alice Herperger opened with an address to the business owners present at the Rec. Centre saying, “we went forward by going back to the way things used to be, and said we don’t want to run on taxpayers’ money. A portion from business license fees was what we feel is a better option.”
Herperger cited the example of the town of Carstairs, as having used the same funding model over the last 10 years, as an example of how adding chamber membership fees to business licenses can work.
She explained that she crunched numbers, looking for what seemed like the fairest cost to add to business licenses. One of the main things the chamber is looking to do with money acquired from adding the membership fee to business license costs is use it to establish a full-time position for the executive director, the only paid member of the chamber.
The representatives of the chamber considered a full-time executive director to be important because as is, Executive Director Matisson Hannotte is paid to work three days a week – an amount of time that is considered suboptimal for all the work the chamber needs to get done.
“We’re trying to get together, to solve a problem together,” said Herperger.
Other things associated with the chamber that need funding include gas expenses, office supplies, rent for the building, and the development of a business package to bring to trade shows, AGMs, and other kinds of conventions and gatherings.
The forum took the form of a question and answer session with business owners each being given around three minutes to ask questions or speak of their concerns.
One of the issues that came up from a number of business owners was that the chamber membership fee was unreasonable. One suggested alternative offered by the chamber was a tiered system dependent on the size of the business, which would “need to be figured out,” said Herperger. “Whatever we do, we need to figure out how to get funding without tax money.”
She added, “We want to be a resource center, to help businesses grow and develop, to help market what businesses can offer, and to help find workers for those businesses. There are all sorts of issues like housing for employees that we could work on if he had enough funding. Tonight we are asking for your support. We’re a strong chamber, but we could be stronger.”
Graham Getz, General Manager for the St. Paul and District Co-op, commended council and the chamber for their efforts saying, “The fee in itself is beneficial. We’re stronger together than the sum of our parts. The fee may not be much, but the benefit is huge. Working together is a phenomenal idea.”
John Quadros, owner of Health Mart 2000, questioned the fairness and legality of the proposition, arguing that the inclusion of a chamber membership fee in the town business license would be forcing the hand of businesses owners to join the chamber, and not giving them a fair choice in the matter.
Quadros, citing a letter he received from the Minister of Municipal Affairs, said that he believed that it was not legally permissible for the town to charge business owners memberships, on behalf of an organization they did not want to be a part of.
In response, Herperger explained that the chamber is allowed to approach council and propose the idea, and that it was legal to enact a bylaw to charge additional membership fees, if it is considered mutually beneficial to the chamber and members, having consulted the Alberta Chamber of Commerce on the matter.
Pierre Lamoureux, a local lawyer who operates in St. Paul, expressed support of the idea saying, “The chamber is a representative whether or not it benefits. Businesses derive much more than the $115 membership fee from being part of the chamber. It’s not a matter of forcing – it’s a proposal to get funding through the community it supports.”
Quadros suggested that the chamber was not adequately supporting or representing local businesses, saying that having been in St. Paul for 15 years, he’d never been approached by the chamber for support.
Speaking as owner at Richardsons Jewellery, Gary Ward objected to the chamber’s proposal saying, “It’s wrong. People should have a choice. You can’t force them to be a member. You can’t push that on the town.” Ward is also the town’s recreation director.
Lucille Penz, owner of Lucille’s Massage and Esthetics, asked if there were any alternative routes that could be taken. Penz suggested that the chamber and its members collaborate and look at suggestions, explaining that she did not think it was right to make chamber membership mandatory.
Kevin Bernhardt, Station Manager for 97.7 The Spur, explained that 2004 was the last time the business license fee increased. He explained that license fees can increase, but with the increase of the chamber’s proposed bylaw, there would be benefits of chamber membership that accompany that increase.
In response to some of the comments from both the chamber and business owners, Town of St. Paul Mayor Glenn Andersen provided a brief definition of the Chamber of Commerce, and said, “I think the strong local network that makes up a chamber is missing here.”
In response to some of the criticisms, Hannotte explained that a strong chamber with good representation means that the organization would have a louder voice in provincial and federal chambers of commerce as well.
Bode Akindele, another local business owner, suggested the chamber must do everything it can to entice as many people as possible to join.
“It’s a simple thing, if everyone was part of the chamber,” said Akindele, adding, “We need to entice more people to join. If we were all members, we’d be discussing amounts, not yes or no. What can we do to facilitate coming together as businesses, and to get all 400 businesses committed?”
Currently, the chamber has over 150 members, having recently gained eight new members in the last week. Andersen suggested that the chamber’s difficulty getting members is from a lack of awareness of the benefits that membership entails.
To that, Hannotte explained that she was going continue to make information on what is available to members more accessible. Chamber representatives maintained that they are doing their best, with what they have, to raise awareness of the benefits of membership.
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