Largely to streamline the efforts of two arguably similar business groups in the village, the Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Redevelopment will merge their organizations at the start of the new year. The move received unanimous support from both boards of directors and was announced publicly this month.
Back in February, Chamber President Mark Hosty acknowledged talks of a possible merger were underway, but said the discussion was more an exercise in helping both groups focus their respective efforts. The idea of a merger has been floated in the past and according to Hosty and other business leaders, the timing now makes sense.
Art Jones was one of the key people who in 1993 helped spur the creation of Forest Park’s Main Street organization. Jones spoke recently of the changes that have taken place between 1993 and today, and said part of the reason a merger is logical is that many of the original goals have been accomplished.
“The business district was in a very distressed state,” Jones said in an e-mail of the climate in 1993. “Vacancy rates were high and the need for economic development was not being addressed by other entities. Madison Street has changed dramatically since 1993. The emphasis has shifted from bringing businesses to town to bringing shoppers.”
Executive Director for the Chamber, Laurie Kokenes, said those entrepreneurs that have since set up shop in Forest Park recognize the huge shift in advertising strategies often employed by both the Chamber and Main Street.
“It used to be OK not to do a lot of advertising and marketing,” Kokenes said. “Now businesses are in competition not just with other businesses but with other towns. Your town has to be a destination in order to really compete.”
In other words, the influx of progressive individual entrepreneurs in one organization has made an alternative progressive organization unnecessary. Overlapping efforts their efforts ultimately wastes resources.
Matt Brown is on the Board of Directors of Main Street while his wife Connie sits on the Chamber’s board. Jayne Ertel from Team Blonde is on Main Street’s board, while her business partner Heidi Vance serves with the Chamber. As the quality and quantity of communication between the two organizations increased during the last few years, board members became aware of duplication in both the problems being addressed and the kinds of solutions being promoted.
“I think that Main Street has done a fabulous job, but now that we’ve been revitalized and developed we’re both working on promoting,” Kokenes said. “Both boards have decided that this can be done in one stronger, cohesive organization.”
Once the merger takes place, Kokenes will keep her position as executive director of the new Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development. Main Street’s assistant director position, filled by Kathleen Hanrahan in mid 2006, will be eliminated.
Other perceived benefits to the merger include limiting the public’s confusion over which group is sponsoring which event. Volunteers recruited for those programs are less likely to get burnt out working with two groups, and having one body should sharply focus fundraising efforts.
“It’s a question of how many times you can go to the same well,” Main Street President Art Sundry said.
Despite ongoing fundraising challenges, Sundry said financial problems are not a motivation for either organization to merge.
Despite the many perceived advantages to merging, Kokenes added a cautionary note to the enthusiasm, saying that it all depends on the people who are involved.
Until Jan. 1 the two boards of directors have combined into one mega-board. Anyone on either board who wanted to remain was welcomed into the new leadership group. The new board will present for approval a slate of nominees for the board of directors and officers to those attending what in the past has been called the January Chamber luncheon.
The new board will have 25 voting directors and four advisors with voice but not vote: the heads of the library, the park district, the police and the fire department. The mayor will be a permanent voting member, and for the first year the terms of office for all board members will be just 12 months.
Since neither group has belonged to Main Street or the Chamber of Commerce at the state and national levels for several years, their status in that regard will not be affected.