By Polly Mikula
The Rutland Economic Development Corp. (REDC) and Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce held Zoom meetings Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 12 and 13, to present the new organizations goals, merger plan, and new leaders to members of both organizations.
“The new working name is Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region,” said Mary Cohen, current executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce. While she acknowledged the name was a “bit of a handful” she said each part was fairly crucial to the identity and mission of the combined organizations.
“We felt that ‘chamber’ had a very clear meaning and understanding, especially to the business community, while ‘economic development’ was important to our combined mission and we really wanted everyone to know that we support the entire ‘Rutland Region’,” she explained.
The path to the merger has been a long time coming.
About four years ago the organizations began the conversation, Cohen said during the presentation Thursday. Those talks continued off and on until April this year, when the two organizations along with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, Rutland Redevelopment Authority, Downtown Rutland Partnership and Killington Pico Area Association met to discuss the possibility of merging services, she continued.
“Out of that, only the Chamber and REDC decided to join and move forward with a merger,” Cohen said. “Our organizations were already structured very similarly with similar missions.”
On July 30, the boards of both organizations voted unanimously to merge. The merger is expected to be complete in September.
The new organization will:
- Provide unity of effort and a unified voice for the region.
- Eliminate duplication of efforts and more effectively utilize available financial resources.
- Take advantage of staff expertise and skill sets.
- Provide access to loan and grant opportunities to a broader range of businesses and industry sectors.
- Align delivery of services in a one-stop location for easier access for members and the public.
- Provide a greater benefit through membership (i.e. Perk Cards, business exposure, advocacy, marketing opportunities, and business collaboration).
- Combine membership dues leverage greater regional opportunity for economic and community development.
Both the Chamber and REDC had a staff of three with budgets of $612,648 (including $175,000 for the regional marketing initiative) and $489,523, respectively.
The new Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region will have a staff of five and budget of $848,746, representing a savings of $253,425 compared to the prior budgets of the two separate organizations.
Lyle Jepson who served as REDC’s executive director from 2016 to 2018 then went on to serves as director of career and technical teacher education at Vermont Technical College, will be the executive director of the merged organization.
Tyler Richardson, currently the executive director at REDC, will be the operational director of the new organization. Kim Rupe, currently the assistant director for REDC, will be the business development and community engagement manager. Penny Inglee, currently the marketing and project manager for the Chamber, will be the member services, events, office manager, and Elicia Pinsonault, currently the communications specialist for REDC, will hold that same title for the combined organization.
Mary Cohen, currently the executive director of the Chamber, will no longer be part of the staff having recently been named executive director of the Housing Trust of Rutland County, but will remain active with merged organization as a board member.
“It has been a privilege to serve the people, businesses, and communities of Rutland County, and I am thrilled to join the board so I can continue that work in a new capacity,” Cohen said.
Jepson said he is energized to take on the challenges facing Rutland County and look forward to collaborative partnerships. “We look forward to working even more collaboratively with other regional organizations, partners, and towns, and, in particular, I look forward to reconnecting with the Rutland region,” he said.
The new organization will be housed in the Chamber offices at 50 Merchants Row, on the corner of Merchants Row and West Street.
“It’s the best spot in terms of traffic with large windows… we want people to see that the lights are on, that we’re active and central to our community,” said Jepson. “We’re working with Mark Foley, Jr. who owns the space that REDC has rented [in the Opera House building on Merchant’s Row] to see if we can create a co-working space there… when co-working is possible again.”
Both the Chamber and REDC are supported largely by membership dues and will continue in that capacity when merged. Businesses that were members of one organization or the other will see their dues remain unchanged for the coming year. Businesses that are members of both organizations will see a decrease in their dues.
Cohen said that while there has been a decrease in membership dues as a result of Covid-19 it hasn’t been as drastic as she had expected. And now that businesses are reopening they’re seeing an uptick and many are paying who gotten behind. “We’ve given people a grace period, we know they are facing a lot of hardships and need to make payroll first,” she said.
“Businesses recognize the community building that the Chamber does, and economic development that REDC does… it’s really a home run,” said Jepson. “I think most businesses will be back as soon as they can be… but it’s important to give businesses a grace period during this difficult time.”
Tia Poalino, executive director of the Rutland County Free Clinic, asked if the new organization had considered partnerships, services and collaborations with nonprofits such as the Free Clinic.
Cohen said while they haven’t worked as much as they could with nonprofits in the past, both organizations have always been open to collaboration that benefit the community. She said the Chamber had begun “a wellness collaboration program to encourage workplace wellness.” The program was mainly targeted at small to medium size employers who don’t have resources to run such programs themselves for their staff, she said. “The chamber can help them fill that gap,” Cohen added. “We are the avenue to talk to the business community.”
“We may not have all the answers or resources ourselves,” Jepson added, “but we know people and organizations that can help. We can bridge the connection to problem-solvers.”