“We’ve made great strides,” says John Petz.
Last June 1, Petz became the first board chair of the combined Ann Arbor / Ypsilanti Regional Chamber. In recent years, the neighboring chambers of commerce had seen their memberships fall and budgets tip into the red. So, along with expanding members’ contacts, the merger was a way to increase efficiency–and that’s just what it’s done. “We’ve refined the events and programming to eliminate duplication, so instead of two golf programs, we now have one, and instead of two leadership programs, we now have a single combined program,” says Petz. “And staff integration seems to have gone very well.”
“One position was consolidated,” president Diane Keller explains, “and we didn’t have to lay anybody off–that person left for a full-time position elsewhere.” Of course, merging the chambers also eliminated the need for two presidents, and thereby saved one of the chambers’ two biggest salaries.
Membership hovers “between 1,450 and 1,500,” according to Keller, while the combined budget has fallen from $1.2 million before the merger to $1 million now. Thanks to the cuts, though, the chamber’s “financial status is much better,” Petz says. “We’re going to end the year in the black, and that’s a change for both organizations in recent years.”
They’ll save even more once the lease on their Ypsilanti office expires in 2013 and they can fully consolidate their operations. “We have all our staff in Ann Arbor now,” Keller explains, “and we’re in the Ypsilanti office about once or twice a week.”
The combined chamber already is flexing its political muscle. “We had fairly consistent engagement on state ballot initiatives and local ballot initiatives,” says Petz, who previously chaired the Ann Arbor chamber’s public policy committee. “Last year, we continued much of that, but did a far better job of communicating it to our membership and broadcasting it to a larger public.
“But more importantly,” Petz continues, “last year for the first time we offered endorsements of candidates”–pro-business Republicans Rick Snyder for governor and Mark Ouimet for state representative. The decision was made by the board, not by the membership. “Our public policy positions are not membership driven,” Petz says, but “Rick and Mark were extremely well known to the membership because both were chamber members, and we felt we knew who these particular candidates were and what their particular agenda was.”
How did that go over? “Nobody called and said they were going to drop their membership,” says Petz. “Anecdotally, a few people told us they were frustrated by the endorsement, and other people said they were perfectly content. But if you hear from a half-dozen people, is that a reliable gauge of a 1,500-member organization?”
Petz expects the chamber to be involved in the debate over how to change the state business tax. It’s also sure to weigh in against any attempt to adopt a city income tax. “The chamber offered an opinion when that issue came up two years ago,” Petz says. “It was overwhelmingly opposed then–and it will be vigorously opposed in the future.