The economic slide that began in Oklahoma during the first quarter appears to have had little negative impact on regional chambers of commerce, executives report.
“A lot of businesses are looking for new ways to market and network, and they’re using the chamber to grow their business in the tough times,” said Gary Akin, president of the Owasso Chamber of Commerce.
Tulsa Business Journal research shows membership in the region’s 18 largest chambers rose 2.58 percent from 2008, rising to a collective 8,306 members as of Oct. 1, compared to 8,097 a year earlier.
The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce saw the largest membership slide, dropping 25 percent to 150 from 200 members.
In contrast, membership grew 27.45 percent at Catoosa from a year ago — the largest percentage gain in the Tulsa region. Catoosa, in the middle of a membership drive, is aiming to boost membership a total of 30 percent, said Judy Odom, chamber president. The Catoosa Chamber membership rose to 130 from 102 in 2008.
The next highest gain was 18 percent at the Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce. The BA Chamber reported 850 members compared to 716 a year ago.
Next was the Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where membership rose 17.1 percent to 280 members —up from 239.
The Coweta Chamber of Commerce saw membership grow by 9 percent to 166 in the past year.
But the majority of the chambers who responded to the TBJ survey indicated steady or slight growth over the previous year. Many new members, however, are small businesses, which pay less in membership dues. Chamber executives report new business activity and ribbon cuttings over the past 14 months have tended to be retail stores, antique shops and restaurants.
Chambers constantly have to find ways to prove the worth of a chamber membership and help members realize the return on their dues, or their “investment,” said Brenda Senter, vice president of membership development for the Broken Arrow Chamber.
A few years ago, joining the chamber was the right thing to do, Senter said.
“It is different today. They want more value from their memberships,” she said.
The BA Chamber has to prove its worth to FlightSafety just like it has to prove its worth to Broken Arrow Flower Basket, she said.
“It’s an ongoing thing,” she said.
The Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is working to help companies better use the benefits that come with chamber membership, said Francisco Trevino, executive director of the Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The organization, struggling just a few years ago, has been recognized for its rapid growth and programs, Trevino said. He took over the program in 2007, and a year ago, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce singled out the Tulsa pro-business organization.
Today, the group has 280, members with Hispanics owning more than a half of the member companies.
The organization offers workshops on personnel issues and finances to help small business owners, Trevino said.
With the arrival of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, growth in Catoosa might be inevitable, but Catoosa Chamber executives Odom and Amy Sutherland remain aggressive.
“We knew changes were coming with the addition of the Hard Rock, and we wanted to be proactive rather than reactive,” said Sutherland, president-elect. “People understand things are happening and want to be part of it.”
The chamber is a conduit for business, Odom said.
“People see what is happening and want to come aboard,” she said.
Business of Learning
The Greenwood Chamber focuses on economic development, said Reginald King, Resource Center manager of the Greenwood Chamber.
The Greenwood Chamber works with public and private partners and community organizations to create a mixed-use community in the Greenwood District and north Tulsa. It is through these partnerships the GCC sponsors workshops and small business seminars throughout the year.
Classes of up to 25 students learn about writing a business plan, financing and franchising, King said.
When the economy turns sour, more people consider going into business for themselves, he said.
“The success rate is between 18 and 22 percent of those people who start a business,” he said. “They want to take their fate into their own hands. The dream becomes a reality only if you follow it.”
Broken Arrow, like many chambers in the metro, have added “leads” groups as part of the membership package. The BA groups meet twice a month.
“It is networking on steroids,” Senter said.
The BA Chamber, led by long-time chamber executive Mickey Thompson, has created “summits” where members are coached to create their own tag lines, making a first and lasting impression, how to make a presentations and about referral.
Business people are interested in membership when they see the value of it, said Glenpool Chamber Director Dianne Bileck.
“They want any information that we can make available that helps them improve business.”
There is interest in the chamber, “but it depends on what you have to offer,” she said.
Membership in the Sand Springs Chamber of Commerce has been stable, as the chamber added 35 new memberships but lost 12, said J.C. Kinder, executive director.
“We have quite a few get involved. It makes me think people are seeing the importance of networking,” Kinder said.
The challenge for Sand Springs is finding businesses to overcome the economic impact of losing the Gerdau Ameristeel steel mill this summer. Gerdau Ameristeel issued layoff notices to 300 employees at its Sand Springs steel mill. The company, citing the collapse of steel prices, is trying to decide to either idle the plant for two years or shutter it.
Another Sand Spring-based steel company, tubing products maker Webco Industries, reported a $2.9 million loss for 2008.
“Manufacturers are facing challenges,” Kinder said.
Bartlesville membership has been flat, said John B. Kane.
“We are not filled with ‘doom and gloom,’” he said.
Kane owns Kane Cattle Co. and is the chairman of the Bartlesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. He sees a strong fourth quarter because of pent-up demand from the first half of the year.
“People have been putting off projects. They were scared — especially in the oil and gas industry,” Kane said. “Then they decided things were not as bad as advertised. Or, in some cases things could not be put off any longer.”
Kane operates a metal fabrication business that makes submersible pumps and tools for the oil and gas industry. Orders are up a third from a year ago, giving the company its strongest quarter yet, he said.
“We have orders to carry us through the end of the year,” he said.
Membership growth often depends on the leadership, said Wanda Nyberg, executive secretary of the Collinsville Chamber of Commerce.
“The past year we have seen a lot more activity,” she said. “Getting new blood on the board, getting new people on the board helps. It can get stale, but with new people you tend to see a fresh enthusiasm.”
Membership in the Owasso Chamber of Commerce remains steady, said Akin.
The city, growing at a healthy 15 to 20 percent annually since 2006, continues to invest in its future, building schools and homes.
Owasso is benefitting from two positive trends, Akin said.
Year-over-year home starts are up, he said.
“We are on a path now, where we will be building 300 new homes,” Akin said. “That is six new homes completed every week.”
The Owasso school district just opened a $15 million elementary school in the Stone Canyon subdivision. The 3,000-acre development northwest of the Port of Catoosa is also home to the Patriot Golf Club. Owasso had been courting Tulsa Community College, but a failed tax package a year ago has delayed building.
“Our members have been concerned over the past nine months. There was uncertainty about their jobs. But people took a deep breath and realized their jobs were secure,” Akin said. “Grocery market sales were up, restaurant sales down.”
Today, Owasso is seeing a growth across a the spectrum.
“You cannot ignore a negative, but what is keeping us going is the cross-section of growth in small business, an increase in the number of doctors, clinics, schools,” he said. “It will be interesting to see the retail trade during the upcoming Christmas season.”