The Port McNeill & District Chamber of Commerce is a shining example of how great things can grow out of an egregious situation. In 2015 without warning or consultation the Town of Port McNeill made the unilateral decision to take back control of the Visitor Information Centre and stop funding the Chamber of Commerce (previously funded by 75% of business license money collected by the Town). Besides terminating that essential funding other repercussions were the loss of a full time employee that managed the Chamber & Visitor’s Info Centre as well as office space.
Recently I sat down with Chamber President Gaby Wickstrom who is running the organization from her home office.
K: Gaby can you please tell me what’s been happening with the Chamber?
G: As difficult as the change was and the structure of our funding, it actually was quite freeing. So when I came aboard as President I really looked at it as an opportunity. We didn’t have any tethers, we weren’t beholden to anybody, any funders of any kind so we really can represent the membership exactly how they want to be represented. We’ve written a letter of support for Ragged Edge Network (a non-profit society providing reliable high speed internet to businesses & residents in remote communities on the North Island). They applied for a grant to upgrade internet in Nimpkish Heights and Hyde Creek and our letter along with others assisted in a successful application. We’ve also written a letter to Minister Shirley Bond requesting topping up of funding for Island Coast Economic Trust.
K: And what about the “gala?” (Referring to the Chamber of Commerce Recognition of Excellence Gala held November 20, 2015)
G: Our gala was fantastic – I look at our gala as our coming out party. We really wanted to let people know that we are alive and well and still a viable organization. I just love celebrating community so that was a fantastic event after a little bit of a tumultuous time of restructuring.
K: And what about future plans?
G: Some things on the horizon are: we offered North Island Secondary School and their 1-11 Coffee Company a free Chamber membership. We really want to get the youth in our community a little bit more involved and so we thought that was a really great starting point. We’ve got some entrepreneurs there. One really cool thing that happened — I posted on our Facebook page that the 1-11 Coffee Company is now a business member and within minutes Andrew Jones from Kingfisher Kayaking was talking about locally sourcing coffee for his business in the summer which is approximately 100 pounds. Apparently Doug Abbot (teacher at North Island Secondary School) says he’s already made contact with him so that’s exciting news. We really are about connecting businesses with each other and if there’s anyway we can support each other we like to help.
We’ll be meeting with Doug Abbot to talk about the possibility of having one of the high school students sit on our board as an ex-officio board member so they’ll get to learn about board governance. And in all honesty I think they’re going to come to the table with some really great suggestions. Like I said in the letter to them, “we’re all old people, we don’t know what you want.”
We’ve also been in dialogue with some of our neighbouring communities. We are the Port McNeill AND DISTRICT Chamber of Commerce so I think it’s really important to reach out to Sointula and Alert Bay who don’t have a Chamber of Commerce. In particular First Nations — we’d like to partner some more with them. The Village of Alert Bay and the Namgis have some great partnerships, they really set a good example. We’d like to be able to assist them in any way we can until either such time as they get their own Chamber together or we expand ours and take in some of their mandates & some of their concerns as well.
K: The member to member meetings have been very successful.
G: Member to member meetings came out of a couple of things. People wanted more networking opportunities – that’s what we heard from our members. And also our regular membership meetings really weren’t all that well attended so we thought we’d change things up a little bit. They are a way for members to connect and find out a little bit more about businesses and it truly has turned out that way. When a member hosts a meeting people always leave saying, “I didn’t know that about that company.” The first one of the year was hosted by West Coast Helicopters and on the horizon is Coastal Community Credit Union. Again these are really well attended and there’s always an opportunity afterwards for members to mingle and chat with each other.
K: Besides the new website how are you using social media?
G: We are 21st century communicating. We send out regular email blasts to our people through a platform called Mail Chimp and we are on Facebook. We use the Facebook page quite regularly for communication with people outside the Chamber. We also have a Twitter account and an Instagram account which we haven’t started using yet. We tweet after an event and if I am personally at an event like Vancouver Economic Alliance in my capacity as a board member/Chamber President I am also tweeting for the Chamber.
Twitter is relatively new to us. We only have about 17 followers. We gather one or two followers every week so that’s a little slow going and probably will expand when I attend things like the Annual General Meeting and other membership meetings as we make connections. Chambers add each other and then the word gets out. Facebook though is really great because with every post that we make I can see how many people have viewed it and how many people have shared it. For example the coffee company – when we posted it by the next day it had something like over 1100 views and that’s directly because so many people shared the post. That’s why Facebook is such a good for small businesses because you see immediate results and for nothing really you can just blow the doors apart on the audience you can reach.
We put up a new website. The last one we had was not easy for us to manage or maintain in house. Angela Smith from Creative Exposure put together our website for us and we’re looking at it every single day. When businesses send in their membership and they have some new information within seconds I can update it. We’ve added an economic development page — it’s very basic right now but we’re going to continue to add to it. It has things like the average house price in Port McNeill and the average rent. We talk about recruitment and retention — we want to be able to recruit and retain the right people. We want them to know everything that we can possibly let them know about our area.
K: Let’s talk about membership and the Chamber being in transition and trying to move forward. How many members are there and what can you do to gain more members?
G: Last year we had about 100 members and we’ve invoiced for 2016 and our membership is coming in. I’m always talking to people about membership so if there’s a new business or if there’s a dissatisfied past member or they’ve never been a member we make a point as a board to connect with those people to find out what their issues are and why they feel a Chamber membership isn’t valuable. And let them know the importance of their voice at the table. If they have some concerns or ideas we’re more successful if they’re with us. The cost really is nominal to a business. Becoming a member also allows you a larger voice as far as advocacy goes. You’ve got all of the business community, the BC Chamber and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce with you as well. Being a Chamber member you can gain access to benefits. There are two options. We have a member ourselves Doug Brown who works for Sun Life and you can speak to him about medical and dental benefits. Or BC Chamber has a plan called Spark, insurance plans, reduction on fuel costs and hotels. There are all kinds of things to take advantage of — we are a BC Chamber member and that allows our members to access any program they offer. If you’re a non-profit organization and we do have some non-profit members I’ve been referring them to this Spark Insurance which the BC Chamber has just brought on board. They offer board liability insurance at apparently a lower cost than others.
K: The AGM is coming up – are you looking for more board members?
G: Yes we are — people are hearing that the Chamber is out there doing things. We’ve actually had a few people approach us about membership and sitting on the board. People want to be involved which is great. We had a few new people that stepped up after the transition and we have a fantastic board. We’re all volunteers and it’s not always easy. It won’t always be like this but the people we have on the board are willing to roll up their sleeves and do some work.
Previously it was hard to make the delineation between the Info Centre and the Chamber. We still represent tourism so if they need lobbying or they’re not happy with the way the town is promoting tourism we encourage them to make their concerns known. There probably will come a time when we as a Chamber will have to speak up on behalf of those members.
For more information please visit the website at http://www.portmcneill.net/