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Chamber pondering its future
• Nov. 4 meeting set for community input
Ledbetter and Wilson
Renee Ledbetter (left) and Dovie Wilson have been key Chamber representatives for many years. Now the Chamber is seeking input on where the Chamber should be headed -- if it is to go forward at all. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier file photo

The Ceres Chamber of Commerce will hold a community meeting on Thursday, Nov. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Ceres Community Center to discuss the future direction of the Chamber and its role in the community.

The meeting stems from many changes taking place in the community, including leadership changes at the City Hall, post-pandemic mandates and outcomes, and concerns of the sustainability of Ceres businesses if another shut-down takes place.

Several Ceres businesses were forced to permanently close their doors during the pandemic, while others grappled with closing temporarily and working remotely, including the Ceres Chamber.

“Many things have changed since COVID – some businesses learned to work remotely, while others couldn’t survive,” said volunteer Executive Director Renee Ledbetter. “We recognized that many businesses don’t even have an online presence, which might have helped.”

The Chamber hopes business owners and community leaders can collaborate on priorities to improve the sustainability of existing businesses, help drive economic development and share what expectations are held for the Chamber.

“Like so many other Chambers, we have become a Chamber of events and that’s not good. During the pandemic we couldn’t hold events, which was a huge challenge for our small Chamber, since that is how much of our operations are funded.”

Despite its small core of volunteers, aside from the periods of COVID restrictions, annually the Chamber hosts the Installation and Community Service Awards Dinner, a Legislative Breakfast, the Agribusiness Luncheon, and ribbon cuttings for new businesses. The Chamber co-hosts the annual Ceres Street Faire with the Ceres Lions Club each spring and hosts other events like One Table, One Community and the Bands, Brews & BBQ festival, which in of itself takes a year of planning.

The Ceres Chamber also provides agriculture and business-related scholarships to graduating high school students under its 501(c)(3) scholarship foundation.

“During the pandemic we also struggled with many of our own volunteer board members who had to focus on their families and business operations, so we want to build on our volunteer resources within the Chamber. A pre-pandemic board of directors of 13 was reduced to nine when some board members changed jobs or relocated for work.”

Ledbetter, a graduate of the Western Association of Chamber Executives (WACE), said the Ceres Chamber is one of but a few chambers operating almost exclusively on volunteer staffing. She has served on the Chamber’s Board of Directors for over 10 years – four as its president and the last three as the Executive Director overseeing Chamber operations. The chamber has one paid, three-quarter time staff member, Dovie Wilson, who has served as the office manager for nearly eight years and is also a WACE graduate.

“Often we see chambers that have a change in leadership and a volunteer takes over in the interim. The Ceres Chamber has operated with volunteer assistance for decades,” Ledbetter said. “It’s difficult to find experienced chamber executives if you cannot provide a competitive salary and benefits. It’s a catch-22. You can’t provide a competitive salary and benefits if you don’t have full-time staff.”

According to WACE Vice President Jennifer Johnson, a staff salary survey conducted by the association earlier this year showed that chambers with less than 500 members have an average of 2.96 employees.

“One challenge we face is a low membership rate. We struggle to gain members because we don’t have a full-time person out driving memberships. Then we need to consider what we offer them for their money. That’s the other downfall to being an event-driven Chamber. We need to provide more value to our members.”

In order to know what value to provide to their members, the Chamber wants to hear not just from its members, but the entire business community as to the areas it should place its focus, if any. Board members hope to encourage other members of the community to get involved with the Chamber, either as volunteer ambassadors or board members.

“The Chamber is here to help our businesses, to work with city and industry leaders to improve our economy, and to advocate for economic growth. But we cannot survive without support from our community either,” said Ledbetter.

With fewer than 200 members, the chamber cannot rely solely on its membership, ergo the need for its events.

“A hard question we need to ask is if the Ceres Chamber is still vital to our community? We believe it is,” said Ledbetter, who added that many chambers across the nation have either gone completely digital with no physical location, have merged with other chambers to create regional chambers, or have closed their doors completely.

Unsure of how many Chambers have completely closed their doors due to the pandemic, Johnson said there have been many mergers within the WACE membership that have occurred since the pandemic started, but often chambers who are to the point of having to close their doors are not current members for financial reasons.

The Chamber asks those who would like to attend the meeting to please RSVP to 537-2601 so that proper social distancing measures can be accommodated.