Weighing the pros, cons of membership

Ellicott City merchants might join county Chamber of Commerce

Association called `stagnant'

Howard Business

June 12, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

The Ellicott City Business Association could vote as early as Fridayon a hotly contested proposal to join the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.

"We feel that we could help the Ellicott City Business Association," Ken Williams, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, said last week as he presented the proposal to the association.

The 26-member association has struggled to rally interest, communicate with members and find administrative support for its organization. Some of its members say joining the chamber will help address those problems.

Rich Taylor, vice president of the association, said he and other members at the meeting agreed that the association "is stagnant, has lost credibility, and we're hoping that an organization as professional as the chamber will be able to reinstall that."

Opponents of the plan say they are worried that the more than 850-member Chamber of Commerce lacks the small-business focus that the association offers. They also have expressed concern about the price of joining the chamber and just what it would mean for their organization.

Two membersof the association, who walked out of last week's meeting in protest and later resigned from the board, said some language in the ECBA bylaws could keep the group from joining the chamber.

"The ECBA, at this point, is restricted from becoming affiliated with the chamber," said Barry Gibson, a dental technician whose business is in Ellicott City.

Gibson and his wife, Nancy Gibson, an association board member who owns the Forget Me Not Factory in Ellicott City, resigned from the board after last week's meeting, Taylor said.

Taylor said it is not clear whether the ECBA is restricted from joining the chamber. The association's board is scheduled to address the legal issue at Friday's meeting, with written clarification of the bylaws from the association's attorney. A vote could follow that discussion, Taylor said.

The meeting last week set out to define what a relationship with the chamber would entail and to address concerns.

Local business owners demanded to know how the chamber could help Ellicott City and what it has already done for the historic town and its businesses.

"I don't have a laundry list, and that's part of the reason we're here," said Dwight W. Clark, an attorney in Ellicott City and chairman of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.

Williams, the chamber president, said joining the chamber could help the association with such services as billing and accounting, business development, meeting with local government, and event planning and promotion.

"Ellicott City's a gem of Howard County," Williams said, "and it needs to be better promoted to people moving in."

He also noted that about 80 percent of chamber members are companies with 25 or fewer employees.

"We represent small business in Howard County," Williams said.

The membership would cost the association a total of $425. As members, Ellicott City business owners would be able to attend chamber events, such as seminars and luncheons, at a lower rate offered only to members. They also would benefit from the chamber's public relations efforts, Williams said.

Association members, for example, would be able to advertise at member rates (50 percent off) in a guide the chamber is launching for new residents that provides information about schools, houses of worship, entertainment venues and retail outlets.

And, as representatives of both the chamber and the association have pointed out, the association would be able to use the chamber's clerical help, should it decide to join.

"We have no staffers; they have seven staffers in their office," said association President Adon Phillips. "We have no office, no phone, no fax, nothing."

If the association joins the chamber, it would continue to reap the benefits of its reciprocal membership with the Howard County Tourism Council, whereby each belongs to the other's organization and each has a member who sits on the other's board.

CandaceCoen, executive director of the Tourism Council and a member of the association's board, said two issues that would arise from the relationship must be addressed: defining the association as an organization and developing a tourism strategy for Ellicott City.

"We need to work together to see which group can best provide that," said Coen, who said she plans to abstain from the vote.

Even if the association votes to join the chamber, Taylor said, it doesn't have to remain a member if the relationship doesn't work out.

"It's only for one year," Taylor said.

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