Chambers: Stop Competing and Collaborate to Nurture a More Effective, Balanced Economy

Glenn Morris, ACE

Many chambers serve individual communities within a larger neighborhood or region. Most chamber executives could draw a circle on the map with an hour driving radius and encompass multiple chambers.

For me, that circle includes 19 local chambers and several economic development organizations. Some are large, multiple community chambers; others are small, hyper-local organizations. All are doing their best to support their local business communities.

Too often, we see each other as competition; at our best, we’re good neighbors and supportive colleagues. Sound familiar? Obviously, that many chambers means the same or larger number of communities, each with their own approval processes, political realities, and economic strengths and weaknesses.

Collaboration is Key

Consider the following scenarios:

• A manufacturer loses the lease on their facility and can’t find a suitable facility in your town…but there’s a perfect building in the next town over.

• A technology startup struggles to recruit mid-career talent because the cost of housing in your town has become prohibitive…but several communities within easy commute distances offer housing options at a wide range of price points.

• A new business finds a facility in your community that is perfect for their process, but they’re concerned about the potential for filling highly specialized jobs with local talent…but there’s a university 30 minutes from you.

With the goal of “my town or none,” these scenarios usually result in the existing business leaving the area or the new business choosing to locate somewhere else.

What if, instead, neighboring chambers led their communities to collaborate on business attraction and retention strategies from a truly regional perspective?

If the manufacturer ends up in the next town, don’t their employees get to keep their jobs without relocating?

Won’t they still shop in your town, send their kids to your schools, and support your local nonprofit and cultural communities?

Housing in your town might not work for a particular employee class, but wouldn’t the wider housing market of multiple communities broaden the options and eliminate the obstacle?

If your town has the perfect facility, but the specialized talent is more available near the regional university, doesn’t it make sense to present the entire region as the labor shed for the new business?

Create a Bigger Pie

Collaborating regionally is the key to nurturing a more effective and balanced economy. This approach recognizes and addresses the fact that political jurisdictions overlap and even conflict with each other, missing better possible outcomes for all.

Strategic collaboration gets beyond individual jurisdictions, allowing multiple communities to effectively leverage their collective assets, overcome individual shortcomings, and achieve economic growth in ways not possible by acting alone or at cross purposes.

For individuals and businesses, the region is the functional unit in which they live and operate. Many of us wake up in one city, work in another, and dine, shop and play in many. We regularly drive across city and county borders without a thought or a care.

Our businesses serve marketplaces, both large and small, that depend upon suppliers, workers and customers who rarely reside in a single jurisdiction. Other challenging issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions to homelessness, have no regard for traditional jurisdictional boundaries.

So, why don’t we work to nurture a regional economy instead of staying focused on one city?

Too often, economic development efforts pit communities against each other, driven by a philosophy of scarcity and competition, resulting in an environment where communities are fighting one another for the biggest slice of the pie.

Regional collaboration invites communities to collaborate in a philosophy of abundance where the focus is not on fighting for a bigger slice of the pie, but working together to create a bigger pie.

Regional Approach

Chambers are the perfect place to start building a collaborative regional approach. We know how to build coalitions of diverse interests, convene leaders from multiple community elements, and create the trust needed to make collaboration work.

A regional approach needs to embody traits described by words such as “strategic,” “consensus,” “transparent communication,” “honest broker,” “proactive,” and “resourceful.” Those words to me describe chambers.

Unless the community your chamber serves is either highly remote or large enough to truly be “all things,” it’s time to pull the neighbors together, build a culture of collaboration, and get to work building an amazing regional economy!

Glenn Morris, ACE, is president and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley (CA) Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau.