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SEPARATE CHAMBERS
SHOULD NIAGARA COUNTY'S FOUR BUSINESS ORGANIZATIONS COMBINE INTO ONE MORE POWERFUL ENTITY?

Four separate chambers of commerce; one relatively small county. Does the equation add up? It depends on whom you ask.

A group of area business people is are seeking a merger of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, the Eastern Niagara Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas and the Niagara Business Alliance into -- to form what they say would be one huge organization that they say would be is a more powerful way to revitalize the county's sinking economy.

"Industries and people continue to leave the area," said Paul J. Kolkmeyer, chief financial officer with Lockport Savings Bank and chairman of Niagara Business Alliance. "Niagara County needs a strong business organization with a unified voice and the clout to bring about change."

The three local chambers, however, are somewhat reluctant to give up their autonomy.

Charles P. Steiner, president of the Niagara Falls chamber, warns against moving too quickly 1and alienating members.

"The strength of a chamber of commerce is in its membership," said Steiner. "In any talk of merger, we want to make sure that our members are part of the process. Our 1,300 members pay us a fee, and we have to make sure we return that investment."

The heads of the Lockport-based Eastern Niagara Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas, based in North Tonawanda, both said local identity and control could be lost in the event of a merger.

The proposed Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce would have a combined membership of more than 3,000 businesses, representing tens of thousands of employees -- from architects to X-ray technicians. It would be the second largest business organization in Western New York, after the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which has 3,500 member firms representing 200,000 employees.

After 10 years of talking about combining the Niagara County chambers but with no action, the idea has gained new momentum in recent months, with some of the more aggressive proponents saying an agreement could be in place early next year.

"Why do people just sit around talking about consolidating these business organizations?" asked Kolkmeyer. "We have to show leadership if we want this county to develop. Let's just do it."

Kolkmeyer and his supporters believe a unified chamber would stem the flow of people and jobs from the Niagara region. More than 25,000 industrial jobs have been lost in the past 20 years, according to a Niagara Falls chamber report.

The plan is to consolidate the Niagara Falls chamber with 1,300 members, the Eastern Niagara chamber with 960 members, and the 650 members of the Tonawandas chamber. The merger would also include the business alliance, which represents 50 firms, including some of the biggest in the county, like Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems, with more than 6,000 employees, M&T Bank and Lockport Savings Bank.

Currently, each chamber has three representatives on the alliance's 30-member board.

"What we want is one chamber that will encompass all four business entities, including us," said Kevin C. Schuler, executive director of the alliance. "It's beentalked about for years, but now, there is new momentum. There are many individuals on each board of directors who realize that this is the way to go, that this is the future."

In Western New York, private-sector organizations need to be in the strongest possible position in dealing with the public sector, said Andrew J. Rudnick, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

"By consolidating, the chambers would be speaking with a more unified voice and doing so with the combined clout of their larger membership," he said. "That can only help."

Rudnick said amalgamation has worked for his organization, and he believes it is the most effective and efficient way to do business. The Partnership was formed six years ago when the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce merged with the Greater Buffalo Development Association, making it the largest organization of its kind in the state.

Rudnick said that, in his experience, the anticipated problems of merging were far greater than the reality. He suggested that the chambers combine their organizations over a six-month period, rather than jump in immediately.

Steiner went even further and said that although his chamber recognizes the strength of having one voice, any consolidation should be phased in over two years.

"Ultimately we would like to see the business organizations come together, but we believe it should be a step-by-step process," he said.

That's too slow for Kolkmeyer, who favors the "big bang" approach. He wants to merge the four business organizations in one fell swoop, as soon as possible.

"Some of the people around the table want to take the slow approach and gradually phase in consolidation," Kolkmeyer said. "We'll all be dead and buried if we wait that long."

Kolkmeyer said he knows members on each of the chamber boards who favor the big bang approach, "but they're not willing to stick their necks out."

"If the leadership in the organizations buys into the process, consolidation could happen immediately," he said. "But unless they all get on the same page, it's going to take some time."

The Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas is not nearly on that page. At a meeting last week of the executive committees of the Lockport and Niagara Falls chambers and the business alliance, the North Tonawanda-based chamber was not represented. Executive Director Kurt P. Alverson said he was not invited. Schuler said that was because the Tonawandas chamber "was not interested in pursuing consolidation at this time; but the door's always open."

What are the biggest obstacles to the merger?

"People think their city or town has particular issues only relevant to them," Kolkmeyer said. "I look at things from a more regional perspective."

Alverson said his chamber disliked what he called the autocratic approach by the business alliance when it announced in August that it wanted to create a new organization without first discussing it with the North Tonawanda chamber.

Alverson said he prefers a proposal by the Niagara Falls chamber to have one person represent all three chambers and the business alliance at the county and state government levels.

Though his chamber has been an active participant in the merger talks since the beginning, Alverson said his organization is in a unique situation.

"Our dilemma is that we represent two cities in two counties," said Alverson, meaning the City of Tonawanda in Erie County and North Tonawanda in Niagara County. "Although our greater interest is in Niagara County, we also have members in Amherst and Buffalo."

Alverson also is not convinced that bigger is always better.

"As a small chamber, we recognize that we don't have the capabilities to work on countywide issues," said Alverson. "But by the same token, we realize we can and do pay attention to our own community."

Alverson said his chamber recently obtained a 25 percent commercial tax cut for businesses in North Tonawanda because the small organization was able to zero in on the local community and "do some detail work."

North Tonawanda, like Niagara Falls, has a two-tier tax system -- a homestead tax for residents and a non-homestead or commercial tax for businesses, a system that business people call unfair and a deterrent to new business.

After fighting for two years to have just one equitable tax, the Tonawandas chamber got the city of North Tonawanda to reduce the difference between the two taxes from 50 to 25 percent and promise to combine the two taxes into one fairer tax by next July.

"This is an example of what a relatively small local chamber can do," Alverson said. "This couldn't have been accomplished by a larger chamber."

In the spirit of Alverson's experience, the Eastern Niagara Chamber of Commerce gives the merger plan a "qualified endorsement," said David R. Kinyon, the president.

"Our chamber has been very supportive, and we see a lot of value in developing a closer relationship," Kinyon said. "But a combination of all four organizations must retain the local identity and initiative of each chamber -- something we're still working on."

The diversity of organizations promoting the county goes beyond the three main chambers and the business alliance, said John R. Simon, executive director of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.

"There are more than 13 different entities in Niagara County that are spending too much money and wasted energy in what should be a coordinated effort," Simon said. "We all have to be on the same page if we want to attract new business and industry to this county."

Simon has developed a "business attraction program" for Niagara County, a blueprint that ranges from the region's strengths and weaknesses to the most effective marketing techniques to reach corporate executives.

Meanwhile, county chamber executives continue to wrestle with the decade-old merger idea.

"We need a unified voice in Niagara County more than ever," said Kolkmeyer. "I am confident and hopeful that this time will be different. Consolidation is an idea whose time has clearly come."

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