When Jesse Bernstein became president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce in 2006, it had between 1,300 and 1,400 members–a figure he aimed to double: “My goal was to get to 2,800 to 3,000 members as quickly as possible.”
Then the economy tanked. “Pfizer left,” Bernstein says. “The auto industry was hit hard. We took gut punch after gut punch.” Membership was down to about 1,100 when Bernstein stepped down last June, and the budget had fallen from about $1 million to roughly $900,000.
And that, more than anything, explains why in January the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti chambers merged. Diane Keller, former Ypsi chamber president and first president of the joint body, calls the merger “as fine an example as you’ll ever see of the invisible wall of US-23 coming down.” That’s true–but the deeper impetus was that the groups could live together or die alone.
The Ypsi chamber, too, lost members and revenue in recent years. Keller estimates the combined group will have about 1,500 members, with a budget of around $1.2 million. And the merger should lower costs.
“We’ll streamline services,” says Keller. “We won’t need two phone systems, two copiers, and two postage machines.” She says they’re also “looking to sublease” the Ann Arbor chamber’s floor in the KeyBank building at Main and Huron. The Ypsi office is too small, however, to support both staffs, so any future location of the merged chamber is unclear.
As for reducing or eliminating duplicate staffs–currently eight in Ann Arbor, four in Ypsilanti–Keller says “we’re looking at re-organizing. There are a couple of people in Ann Arbor who have left recently, and we may not replace those positions.”
The biggest savings, though, will come off the top: Keller absorbed Bernstein’s job into her own. Neither will say what Bernstein earned. But during a brief search before the merger was announced, the position was advertised at a salary of $85,000 to $100,000 a year.
With regard to your article on the merger of the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Chambers of Commerce, there are two fairly blatant inaccuracies that need to be corrected. I was intimately involved with the merger discussions from the beginning and the author’s implication that this merger is being done to save money at the top or was in any way a necessity for survival is just plain wrong.
To begin with, the Ann Arbor Chamber was never “cutting from the top” as your headline so erroneously states. I’m not sure where the author or whoever wrote the headline got the idea that the merger was done to save money on our top executive, but that’s simply not true. The merger and the hiring of Diane Keller as the President had little to do with budgetary issues and was truly about combining for regional strength and having the right person at the helm.
Merging the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Chambers has been discussed off and on for almost 10 years, but the talks just never gained traction. Furthermore, the Ann Arbor Chamber had already formed a Search Committee to find a new president prior to the merger discussions. We ended the search when we saw that the merger was being so positively received on both sides and that Diane would be the right person to run the newly formed organization.
Next, although it made for a very dramatic sentence, the author traded journalistic accuracy for opinionated hyperbole when he states, “…the deeper impetus was that the groups could live together or die alone”. That’s ridiculous. The Ann Arbor Chamber’s membership has varied between 1,380 in 2002 to 1,187 today. That’s pretty good in arguably the worst economy in 80 years and hardly a decline that was going to cause us to “die”. Like most other organizations and companies, the Ann Arbor Chamber has had to make adjustments, but we weren’t going to die.
While there are economies of scale resulting from merging the two organizations, the Chambers are doing so for the good of both communities and the region. The merger is simply the right thing to do and now was the right time to do it.
Although I’m certain that the author did his best to distill down the information that he received from the many interviews that he conducted, the fact of the matter is that he interjected his or someone else’s opinion into the article and came to a quite mistaken and very misleading conclusion.
Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce
We’re glad to hear that the Chambers never considered their loss of members to be life-threatening. However, it’s worth repeating that the merger will lower their costs substantially–first and foremost, by “cutting from the top.”