The Ceres Chamber of Commerce has been encouraged to continue as an organization despite faltering participation and revenues. A number of community and business leaders who attended a special gathering held Thursday evening at the Ceres Community Center said they would step up to volunteer for the bare bones staff.
Renee Ledbetter, the volunteer executive director of the Chamber, told the crowd of about 23 attendees that the Chamber has suffered as have most other businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ledbetter said the Chamber was unable to hold its staple events which helped to galvanize the community while bringing in crucial funding during pre-COVID times.
“We’re trying to deal with post-pandemic challenges,” Ledbetter told the gathering, “and the challenges that we’re facing are number one, declining membership. Many businesses have shut their doors, they are struggling, they are in survival mode and so being a part of the Chamber is probably the last priority for them. And it’s unfortunate because we really want to be able to help promote our businesses and it’s really hard to do that when we have one three-quarter person in the office and the rest of us are all volunteers.”
Ledbetter said the Chamber has been unable to recruit new members because of very limited volunteers, adding that “everybody has things and we understand that.”
Eventually the Chamber needs to grow revenue to afford a full-time experienced Chamber manager, she said.
Ledbetter said that the Ceres Chamber can’t depend on events for revenue.
“We’ve learned through the pandemic that we cannot be an events Chamber,” said Ledbetter. “Yes, we will continue to do events but we cannot rely solely on our declining memberships and the events that we have to be the only source of revenue that we have.”
“As a non-profit (organization) the Chamber generates a majority of our revenue by hosting community events, such as ‘One Table, One Community’ and the barbecue festival but due to COVID we were unable to host our events,” said Chamber Board President Herman Bhatti. “We ask if we are vital to the community and if so we are asking the community to help support the Chamber.”
He explained that the chief role of the Chamber is to promote interest in local businesses and provide educational opportunities and assist business with the latest marketing and promotional techniques. The Chamber also assists in attracting new businesses to open in Ceres and assistance to struggling businesses.
Paul Huckaba of Bronco Winery detailed how the Chamber has impacted the community. He explained that the Chamber formed a Political Action Committee (PAC) in 2015 to help educate voters about increasing the city’s Transient & Occupancy Tax (TOT), or motel tax. Passage of that measure allows the city to collect more taxes which are intended to be spent to promote. He also noted that the Chamber gives out thousands of dollars in scholarships each year to deserving high school seniors.
Huckaba noted that the Chamber was instrumental in bringing Blaker Brewing to Ceres, as well as Swan Pools, the Doghouse Taproom and All Valley Pool & Spa.
Ledbetter made it known that the Chamber needs a plan to eventually phase in new leadership as she’s been leading it for about 10 years. The Chamber’s office manager, Dovie Wilson, is also retiring by the end of the year to take care of her aging father. Ledbetter said Wilson has been a huge asset to the Chamber.
The meeting included an overview of Chamber events “which drives out funding,” said Chamber official Brandy Meyer. Outside of periods of COVID restrictions put in place, 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. Other events have included the Holiday Wine Stroll of downtown and Dinner & Movie Night in Whitmore Park.
Meyer said the Chamber also weighs in on legislation, supporting or opposing bills proposed in the state Legislature. It hosts has Coffee & Conversation events with police.
Ledbetter said that attendance at Chamber mixers and ribbon cutting has waned in recent years.
“Even before the pandemic we had noticed that we were getting fewer and fewer members attending our ribbon cuttings, our mixers. It was even challenging getting some of our city council members to some of our events. To me, when we have a ribbon cutting we are celebrating the opening of a business that has chosen Ceres as their home. Everyone in the community should be turning out for that.
She added that it is discouraging, heartbreaking and embarrassing when a business hosts the event with the Chamber “and only three people show up.”
Huckaba explained that membership dues are a big source of revenue. Less than 200 of the 2,000 or so Ceres businesses actually belong to the Chamber, a number that has fallen during the pandemic. Revenue in 2019 was about $21,000. To provide relief to businesses in 2020, the Chamber cut its dues in half.
Typically the events which the Chamber hosts generate about $30,000 annually year.
“Unfortunately when we’ve got the coronavirus going on that put an end to those that really hurts our ability to fund the Chamber activities,” said Huckaba.
One bright area for the Chamber is a growth in revenue from its issuance of Certificates of Origin for businesses which export goods to other countries. Those businesses need a certificate stamped by a local Chamber of Commerce.
“We are one of a handful of California chambers that stamps these export documents electronically, saving businesses time and money,” explained Huckaba.
That service generates about $11,000 to $15,000 per year.
Chamber expenses run about $32,000 per year. When fundraisers and events do well, revenue is about $40,600 annually. Currently the Chamber has about $13,619 in its checking account.
“This is not a big budget Chamber,” he added.
Shane Parson, a former Chamber president, said he plans to step his involvement. He said he has tried hard to bring new businesses like Pastas Pronto yet the people of Ceres don’t tend to support them.
“I’m still not seeing the support from the community at some of these businesses that I support,” said Parson. “We need to support what we have before we go out and really try to get new ones to come in.”
Parson later suggested that the Chamber press the city for a grant from TOT revenues.
Ledbetter said there are a number of ways the community can volunteer to help the Chamber, including attending Chamber events, following the Chamber on social media and sharing its posts, and participating in Chamber trash pick-ups. She said businesses can help by joining the Chamber, becoming a Chamber ambassador or director, hosting mixers or coffee klatches, or hosting training in an area of expertise.
Ledbetter talked about the need to update the Chamber’s website and would love to find someone with web experience to volunteer.