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Coming changes at the Cook County Chamber

Oct 05, 2021 12:36PM ● By Editor
An update on planned changes.  From Jim Boyd, Executive Director of The Cook County Chamber of Commerce - October 5, 2021

I am writing to report on some important upcoming changes to the way the Chamber is organized. I view these changes as essential to ensuring the long-term survival of a vigorous, thriving Chamber capable of meeting a broad range of member needs. 

The boards of the Chamber and Visit Cook County now are working on a proposal to align the two organizations so that they would share a single executive director – currently Linda Jurek. The VCC staff would provide significant administrative and outreach services for the Chamber. I would remain a part-time Chamber employee as director of policy and advocacy. Both boards have approved the concept; work now is on the specifics of a contract between the two organizations.

I initiated this discussion this summer because I believe it is truly necessary. To understand why, please follow a brief discussion of Chamber history. 

The Cook County Chamber is now eight years old. It was born in 2013 when a small group of people came together to talk about ways we might confront the economic doldrums affecting the county economy and how we might knit together the county business community to do that.

It’s difficult today to recall how bad things were in 2013. Inflation was increasing faster than business income – meaning most businesses were eating their capital to stay alive. Over the previous decade, the population of the county had been stagnant – a bad situation masking one that was even worse: We were trading new older residents for young people who were moving away.

To take on the tourism marketing challenges, Visit Cook County was created.

To focus on the serious public policy issues confronting the county and its business community, the Cook County Chamber was created.

Among the founding members, eight pledged very substantial annual dues contributions to ensure the Chamber got off to a vigorous start. And it did, in St. Paul and in Grand Marais. For such a small organization in such a small county, we compiled a record of public policy achievement of which everyone associated with the Chamber can be proud. We truly helped make Cook County a better place in which to live, work and raise a family.

But now most of the Chamber founders have retired and moved on, and their large founding dues pledges have declined by more than half. More and more county businesses now are owned and managed by young people who expect more from their Chamber than a single-minded focus on public policy. They want the networking opportunities, the social connections and the linkage to a community of peers that most traditional chambers offer.

As your Cook County Chamber is now structured, it hasn’t the resources or skills to provide those traditional chamber services. There’s just one employee, who, in theory, does everything to keep the Chamber running and engaged in 30 hours a week. Most weeks involve considerably more hours than that. At 75 years old, I wish to begin working less than that.

But there also isn’t sufficient revenue to expand the staff so that Chamber members might be offered the additional services they expect.

To resolve this unstable situation, we have crafted a variation on a model that is common in smaller American communities: a joint Chamber-tourism organization. We’re not moving toward full merger. Instead, the Chamber board would remain independent, and the Chamber’s valuable public-policy focus would continue under a director of policy and advocacy.

But there would be a single executive director serving both the Chamber and Visit Cook County. And under a contract now being written, the Visit Cook County staff would provide significant administrative support for the Chamber – including an expanded program of member recruitment and member services. Attached is a schematic that explains the concept.

We’re hopeful that this new approach, which emphasizes a full-service Chamber in which important policy work becomes one of several focuses, will help us grow our membership and our dues so that our financial situation becomes more sustainable.

Not a lot of detail is available yet. The first step was to get both boards to approve the concept, which they have done. Now a contract is being written that defines the relationship in some detail. I will keep you updated as that work continues.

I hope you will agree that this evolution for the Chamber and Visit Cook County holds the promise for an exciting new chapter in the work of both organizations. Over the past eight years, the two have played strong roles in setting a prosperous path for Cook County and its people. Significant challenges remain – affordable housing and workforce development to name two. And tourism marketing is a continuing imperative. By realigning in this way, we hope Visit Cook County and the Chamber can position themselves to be at the forefront of that essential work.

Jim Boyd
Executive Director
Cook County Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 805 
Grand Marais, MN 55604
218-370-9665 (office/cell)
218-387-2466 (home)
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