Schenectady County

Plan to combine Albany, Schenectady chambers met with concern

As the boards of the Schenectady and Albany chambers of commerce prepare to vote on whether to combi
Phillip Morris, CEO of Proctors, left, and Ryan Watroba discuss a video that the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce and Chamber of Schenectady County will use to promote the region in an event at the GE Theatre January 28, 2015.
Phillip Morris, CEO of Proctors, left, and Ryan Watroba discuss a video that the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce and Chamber of Schenectady County will use to promote the region in an event at the GE Theatre January 28, 2015.

As the boards of the Schenectady and Albany chambers of commerce prepare to vote on whether to combine membership and staff under a new umbrella corporation, fresh concerns are being raised about small business interests in Schenectady.

Schenectady City Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo is worried that a corporate affiliation between the Chamber of Schenectady County and the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber could leave small Schenectady businesses without a strong advocate.

“I feel as if the regional approach is often extremely important,” she said. “We talk about sharing services all the time. It’s very valuable. But I also feel like chambers are very personal things and are made up of a lot of small community businesses that need a direct champion for them.”

The two chambers announced last fall that they had formed a joint task force to review issues surrounding an integrated corporate structure. Essentially, the two chambers would retain their local offices and identities, but merge staff and membership under a new umbrella corporation designed to advance regional interests. The hope is that other area chambers might consider joining in the future.

It would be the first chamber affiliation of its kind in the region, giving each chamber “the best of both worlds” by retaining local advocacy but allowing members access to expanded resources, stronger advocacy clout and a larger network of potential customers and vendors, chamber leadership said.

But Perazzo said now might not be the time for Schenectady’s chamber to join with such a large organization. Schenectady’s chamber serves more than 1,000 businesses with 50,000 employees. Albany-Colonie’s chamber — which has long acted as a regional entity in mission, membership and board composition — serves 2,400 members that employ more than 110,000 workers across the region. A handful of small, exclusive chambers exist throughout Albany County representing the towns of Bethlehem, Colonie and Guilderland.

“If I heard that some of the smaller chambers within Albany County were going to integrate into the Albany-Colonie chamber, that would make perfect sense to me,” Perazzo said. “But Schenectady has such an amazing amount of economic development and business growth, I just can’t make the connection. They say we won’t lose our identity, but I just have a lot of concerns. I think we’re a strong and vibrant community and there’s absolutely no reason that we should be integrating our chamber into another chamber.”

The task force formed last fall has spent a lot of time reassuring businesses from both communities that the affiliation won’t result in weakened local representation, said Jim Connolly, chairman of the Schenectady chamber’s board of directors. On the contrary, he said, local business interests can be much better served by regional advocacy.

“Have we heard some concerns? Definitely,” he said. “But there are also a lot of people who think there’s an awful lot of benefit that can come out of this. Our members consistently say they need more opportunities to advance their business and to grow, and they’re conducting business in a regional economy, not just a local one. Their success is not confined by Schenectady’s economy alone.”

He pointed to two prominent examples of regional alliances that are paying off: a new alliance between Ellis Medicine and St. Peter’s Health Partners; and a decades-old alliance among Albany, Schenectady and Troy YMCAs.

The Schenectady and Albany hospital systems formed an alliance last year, when Connolly was still president and CEO of Ellis Medicine, that led to the formation of the region’s first Accountable Care Organization and will allow providers to capture Medicare savings.

In 1990, the Albany, Troy and Schenectady YMCAs merged to form the Capital District YMCA, which eventually expanded into the suburbs and today stretches from Lake George south to Greene County with membership around 90,000.

“Everybody still feels like their local YMCA is their YMCA, there to serve their immediate community,” Connolly said. “That’s one of the models we were thinking of when we explored this. Change, any kind of change, is difficult for people. It’s unsettling. But I would say our region’s recent history suggests good things can come out of collaboration and integration.”

CDPHP President and CEO John Bennett, who chairs the Albany-Colonie Chamber board of directors, said the proposed business model in no way shortchanges Schenectady or Albany interests. Of the concerns he’s heard so far, almost all of them revolve around retaining the “local flavor” of each chamber, he said.

“The real value of this is the added value,” he said. “People are not losing their chamber. Their chamber is staying. They’re gaining combined efforts to enhance both organizations and enhance the region as a whole. These two communities are not in conflict. To think you’ll grow Schenectady at the expense of Albany or you’ll grow Albany at the expense of Schenectady is a fallacious argument.”

One issue that remains unresolved is just what the new chamber’s governance structure would look like. The task force charged with exploring the matter will recommend members of the founding board of directors and officers for the initial year of operation. Currently, the proposition on the table is for seven members representing Schenectady County and seven members representing Albany-Colonie, with 18 at-large members.

It’s these at-large members Perazzo is worried about. The councilwoman owned and operated a Schenectady restaurant in the 1990s that benefited greatly from local chamber support, she said. She later went on to work for the chamber, in workforce development, business advocacy and public affairs roles.

“We don’t know who those 18 members would be,” she said. “But when I think of seven Schenectady members trying to have influence over 25 board members when there’s a big decision on the table, I worry.”

The task force — made up of equal members from both boards — made a formal recommendation last month that the chambers integrate. The next step is for the boards of each chamber to vote and then the membership of each chamber to vote. Without approval from the membership, the affiliation won’t happen.

The board votes, set to happen this month, have been postponed another month to give members more time to ask questions and get answers, Connolly said.

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