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Should the chambers merge?

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Is it time for the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce (DSCC) and its occasional business rival, the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce (NCCCC), to again explore a merger?

It’s an issue that has arisen for decades, and it comes back to life every year or two. Maybe it’s time to revisit.

Delaware’s principal asset in many things – its small size that tends to make friends, neighbors and colleagues of us all – is also one of its bigger liabilities. It means a “limited market” for much, from sponsorships to philanthropy and even to community leadership.

Delaware’s micro-size has been part of the issue behind such calls as…

• School district consolidation, getting 19 public districts and three vo-tech districts down to just three county-wide districts, or even one.

• Police force consolidation in New Castle County, compared to Sussex County, which contracts its police coverage from the Delaware State Police.

Such instances abound, overlapping groups interested in cancer, mental health, social services, etc.

More than a decade ago, when he headed the county chamber as its elected volunteer board chair, then Info Systems CEO Mark Stellini led discussions for a merger. The discussions progressed, but subsequently were torpedoed by volunteers and perhaps some staff on the state chamber side.

Today, it’s an altogether different calculus.

Stellini almost a decade ago “cashed out” of the Info Systems business started by his father years earlier, and he has moved into other business ventures, one of them for some years with now DEDO Secretary Alan Levin, after Levin sold his Happy Harry’s drug chain to Walgreens.

Stellini also has been promoted through the chairs of the state chamber board, currently serving as its board chairman and, by many private accounts, slated by the board to replace DSCC President Richard Heffron next year when Heffron retires, making Stellini the top staff person for the state chamber and arguably one of the key spokespersons for Delaware business.

(Full disclosure: I joined each chamber more than 20 years ago, I’ve been a long-time volunteer and member of each of them, serving on a variety of committees and chairing some, albeit not all that active now in either. However, my volunteerism speaks for itself, that I’ve valued the role that each has played in our business community.)

Within the last decade, each of the chambers claimed far more robust membership totals than either seems to have now, about 3,500 members for DSCC and about 1,800 members for NCCCC. Accounts of actual membership varies, but staffs at both chambers also seem to have declined, and some observers put actual membership numbers at about 50 percent of what was once reported.

Wherever chambers of commerce work, they tend to have at least two or three key functions, among them…

• Promoting the business community inside and outside the geography

• Advocacy of business interests in political, government and regulatory circles

• Creation and enhancement of a business marketplace that is supported by networking, events, and other activities.

Other things go with that, of course, like awards programs, leadership programs, publications, etc. And the county chamber, in its case, also operates something of an incubator, helping many individuals build small businesses and self-employment occupations.

Delaware has about a dozen or so chambers, for the beach areas, Central Delaware Chamber for Kent County, Middletown focused on its growing business community, and many others. And it has a rapidly growing successful new chamber, the Delaware Small Business Chamber of Commerce with 300 members, with strict membership limitations to focus on smaller closely held small businesses.

Plus, Delaware enjoys a robust chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), long regarded as America’s most effective small business lobbying organization at the national level, with active representation via volunteers and lobbyists in most State capitols.

But it’s the concentration of Delaware’s population in New Castle County – about two-thirds of Delaware’s 940,000 or so citizens, and perhaps even more than two-thirds of its businesses – and the dispersed nature of business throughout the county that seem to create the “case” for a merger.

Obvious benefit to members will be to reduce from two to one the significant membership fees that they need to pay, usually starting in the $300 or so range for the smallest of businesses, and going well beyond $1,000 for the largest of businesses. Also, it would allow a reduction of overhead, moving from two executive staffs including lobbyists to one, and it would get rid of an unnecessary rivalry.

So it represents a genuine win-win for members and the organizations, with the only costs perhaps being job losses from redundancies, and perhaps not even those.

Occasionally we hear that such discussions once again might be underway, and many of us long active in the business community would happily lend our moral support to making it happen. ♦

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