Members faced with decision about maintaining Laurel Chamber

By Tony E. Windsor

The Laurel Chamber of Commerce met for its first meeting of 2018 and addressed what could possibly be one of its most significant issues since being founded over 100 years ago. The Chamber general membership meeting was held on Wednesday morning, Jan. 3, at the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Hall.

Incoming Chamber President Kevin Christophel and past President Eva DuPont jointly addressed membership about the potential of having the Laurel Chamber and other local chambers merge with the Seaford Chamber of Commerce to become the Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce.

The issue of merging with the Seaford Chamber is not a new concept. Discussions between the two Chambers began several years ago, but the issue was tabled by the Laurel Chamber and no action was taken. Instead, the Laurel Chamber, under Executive Director Don Dykes, decided to work to enhance membership, develop local fund raising events to support operations and open a Chamber office in the Laurel Heritage Museum at the site of the former train station.

Initial discussions considered the potential of disbanding both the Seaford and Laurel chambers and forming a new regional chamber of commerce. However, recently the Seaford Chamber of Commerce board voted and is now in the process of changing its name to the Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce and has moved its office location from downtown High Street, out to U.S. 13 to a location between Seaford and Laurel.

The concept of forming a more regional Chamber of Commerce has been introduced as a way for the local chamber organizations to have a larger unified representation in the business and economic future of the western Sussex County area and gain a larger amount of state tourism funding.

Christophel explained that his focus for 2018 is to grow the Laurel Chamber and develop the core strength. He went on to explain that when he joined the Laurel Chamber of Commerce under the leadership of then Executive Director Don Dykes, there was a core group of 10 or 12 members who were consistent in being active and carrying out the needs of the Chamber seeking no credit.

What I want to do in 2018 is focus on growing that core strength that the Chamber needs to move forward, he said. Christophel said the time has come when the Laurel Chamber needs to make a decision about whether it wants to remain locally independent or merge with the Seaford Chamber of Commerce.

According to information on the Seaford Chamber of Commerce website, The Greater Seaford Chamber of Commerce has been serving the Western Sussex County business community for nearly 60 years. Our service and support covers the City of Seaford and the towns of Greenwood, Bridgeville and Blades in Western Sussex County, Delaware. Over 300 members (350) support the mission of the Chamber, to establish and maintain itself as the primary advocate, voice and resource for business organizations in our area.

Christophel said the Laurel Chamber leadership does not want the decision to merge with the Seaford Chamber made without the full input of the general membership, in an effort to know how the community feels about a potential merger.

Past Laurel Chamber President Dupont said the invitation to join the Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce came about in November and in addition to Laurel, the Delmar Chamber of Commerce has also been invited. She said the Laurel Chamber Board feels the issue to be significant enough to warrant full discussion with membership before making a decision.

She said this is why initial discussion was scheduled for the first general membership meeting of 2018; as a means to begin gaining input. The Chamber plans to also send out a questionnaire in the next two weeks to gain additional information from members and results of both the discussion and the questionnaire will be presented during the February Chamber meeting. At the March general membership meeting a vote can be taken to decide about whether the Laurel Chamber will remain autonomous, or merge into the Western Sussex Chamber.

Dupont said the Seaford Chamber has expressed plans to develop a Visitors Center at the new U.S. 13 location, along with a lighted sign that will promote Chamber events and local tourism. She read a letter sent to Seaford Chamber of Commerce members by Chamber Executive Director Lynn Harman. The letter stated in part, Furthermore, we have approached both the Laurel and Delmar Chambers to offer them inclusion to collaborate with us in forming a regional chamber. This will position us to have a stronger presence, and hopefully greater influence when it comes to issues and legislation that affects business and economic development in western Sussex County. We are looking forward to continued discussion with both Chambers.

Dupont said the Laurel Chamber membership now needs to decide what it will do regarding the invitation from the Seaford Chamber of Commerce. The topics up for discussion today are as follows, number one, we need new leadership to step up from the current chamber membership to keep the Laurel Chamber on a positive, productive path, or number two we need to consider becoming part of the regional chamber and inherit our leadership from them.

She said that while the Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce will maintain Lynn Harman as Executive Director, a vacancy expected at the end of February in an administrative position would allow the Laurel Chambers Executive Coordinators position to possibly be absorbed into the regional chamber.

Dupont said there are also plans by Harman to develop a special 501c3 charitable trust to disperse fundraising dollars through Chamber grants. The idea would be to keep our fundraisers in place with proceeds going to the charitable trust. We would then be able to distribute them differently than we do right now, she said.

Currently, the Laurel Chamber relies of fundraising dollars to pay for operations. Events include the annual Party at the Pond Jeep Jamboree at Trap Pond State Park, the Broad Creek Bike and Brew, and the Fall Bridal Expo, held at Chickberry Farms, Laurel.

The Seaford Chamber of Commerce sponsors no local events, instead sponsoring and providing promotional support for Seaford events including the annual Live for Chocolate event to support womens health and the Nanticoke Riverfest. The Seaford Chamber of Commerce operations are funded through membership dues and additional revenue streams including a small portion of by state tourism dollars.

Dupont said that there are Laurel Chamber of Commerce members who are also members of the Seaford Chamber and the Delmar Chamber of Commerce, so a merger into a regional operation could be a cost savings. She said what that fee structure may be has not been determined.

She said based on discussions with Harman about a merger, she feels the goal of the merger of the Laurel Chamber of Commerce is more to build the outreach of the regional Chamber of Commerce and have a larger presence to support economic development, not to enhance a financial bottom line.

Dupont said the Seaford Chamber has attached no formal deadline regarding the Laurel Chambers decision whether to merge into the Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce, but she feels it is something that needs to be addressed soon.

Christophel said he believes that the Laurel Chamber of Commerce has the ability to sustain itself and maintain its position as an independent organization; however, he questions whether the issue of merging into the regional Chamber may have to be discussed again in a few years. He feels that having a voice in how the regional Chamber develops is important.

Personally, I do not want to see Laurels identity lost because we missed the initial launch. This is a decision that needs to be made sooner, rather than later, he said.

Membership has requested that Lynn Harman be invited to the next general membership meeting of the Laurel Chamber to share her vision for the Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce and answer membership questions about the potential merger.

News tips wanted
Call us with ideas for news and features. We're always looking for good stories to share with readers. Call Bryant Richardson at 629-9788.