Jennings County disbands chamber

NORTH VERNON — The Jennings County Chamber of Commerce board of directors has voted to disband the 181-member organization.

The April 25 closing announcement was made the same day that Marie Shepherd — the North Vernon organization’s executive director and sole employee — announced she had accepted a position as Jennings County Area Plan Commission executive director.

Frequent leadership changes at the 61-year-old chamber, as well as the loss of a stable retail environment, have been cited as reasons why Jennings chamber membership has dropped significantly from its one-time peak of 400 members.

During the past five years, some residents have contended that other organizations, including the Jennings County Economic Development Commission, were now performing a number of chamber functions.

Board members of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, which operates on a regional level, will consider approaching some Jennings County businesses to offer support, especially in providing networking and professional development opportunities, Columbus Chamber President Cindy Frey said.

Calls to Shepherd seeking comment had not been returned, but former North Vernon Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell, who retired after completing his second term at the end of last year, said the internet was the leading reason why there was a decline in downtown merchants.

Campbell said he based that assessment on conversations he and Shepherd had when they visited Jennings County businesses an average of three mornings a month while he was in office.

Based on what he was told, many retailers who previously marketed themselves to baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) have turned to the internet in an effort to reach younger millennials (born from the late 1970s through the mid 1990s) in the hope of attracting them as long-term customers, Campbell said.

In northern Kentucky, a similar explanation was offered when the Louisville Economic Chamber of Commerce announced it was ceasing operations late last year. “The evolution of technology and social media has changed the way in which businesses network, market, and obtain information,” stated the Louisville organization in a December newsletter. “This alone has certainly made an impact on (chamber) participation over more recent years.”

With more businesses focusing on web-related marketing and networking, traditional chambers are facing limited financial corporate sponsorship, reduced participation during events and capacity limitations for current volunteers, the newsletter said.

There are a number of fledgling trade associations and other member-based organizations facing the same problems, Frey said.

Although the internet is an important marketing and education tool, Frey stressed proprietors and entrepreneurs should never use it as an excuse to neglect personal business relationships.

“People still want to do business with someone they know and trust,” Frey said. “Nothing really replaces the face-to-face aspect of knowing your customers and suppliers.”

Although the North Vernon-based chamber lost more than half of its members over several years, Frey’s organization in Bartholomew County is doing extremely well.

The Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 600 local and regional businesses, maintains a 91 percent membership retention, Frey said.

Since the Columbus chamber dates back to the late 19th century, the organization has established a strong base sustained by both tradition and community pride, Frey said.

But Campbell identified three economic advantages Columbus has over North Vernon that he said are vital in maintaining a stable business environment that can support a chamber. They include:

Immediate proximity to Interstate 65

A large Fortune 500 corporation (Cummins, Inc.)

Smaller high-tech companies that provide employees with substantial expendable income.

“When you have those three things, you can succeed no matter what happens,” Campbell said.

Campbell, who did not seek a third term and was succeeded by Mike Ochs on Jan. 1, cited other reasons for the Jennings County chamber’s demise.

“You can’t put your finger on one item,” the former mayor said.

When the 2008 recession hit Jennings County especially hard, some business owners pointed the finger of blame at both the chamber and North Vernon City Hall, rather than the local impact of a global economic downturn, he said.

Although it was announced in 2011 that North Vernon would receive $20 million through the Stellar Communities Program, the public funds did not result in the anticipated private sector investment, Campbell said.

“Merchants don’t live downtown and above their stores like they used to,” the former mayor said. Instead, there are many empty downtown buildings in North Vernon in need of serious upgrading, he said.

Instead of established business districts, a number of retailers chose to locate in strip malls and outlying areas where benefits from chamber-sponsored activities are limited, Campbell said.

The former mayor also said there has traditionally been a reluctance among those outside of downtown North Vernon to get involved with the organization — even though the chamber’s mission was to serve the entire county.

The Jennings County chamber’s relationship with government is strictly as an advocate on legislative or regulatory issues that could negatively affect business, according to its website.

But since the chamber championed the Stellar upgrade as an economic development tool, it also received its share of blame after North Vernon officials committed about $2 million in local funds as a match for the state grants.

Campbell said a number of people always will be openly critical of any local high-dollar public investment. While some simply didn’t like change or perceived government intrusion, others were vocally critical for political rather than ideological reasons, the Democrat said.

But the former North Vernon mayor said there was likely fault within the chamber and his own administration, as well.

For example, Campbell said he regrets being unable to come up with convincing reasons for chain stores with a large number of employees to join the chamber.

Both the city and chamber could have probably done a better job in establishing or promoting activities such as fundraisers, banquets and ribbon-cutting events, Campbell said.

By not fully promoting all the positive developments in North Vernon, his administration may have allowed more negative stories to dominate local news coverage, he said.

The membership fees that averaged around $200 annually could have also been adjusted to encourage more businesses to join, Campbell said.

Since both Jennings and Bartholomew counties are part of the same regional economy, Frey said it’s important for organizations like hers to step in and provide “healing from this closure.”

“We rise and fall together,” Frey said. “So we all need to be pulling together in order to move forward.”

Chamber overview

Jennings County Chamber of Commerce

Location: 203 N. State St., North Vernon

Founded: 1955 as the North Vernon Chamber of Commerce

Mission: To provide programs and resources to the business and professional community by working together to promote a healthy business environment.

Organization: Autonomous 501 C6 non-profit.

Most recent annual budget: $30,000

Executive Director: Marie Shepherd (since 2012)

Board officers: Brenda Habenicht, President; Dr. Terry Sargent, Vice-President; Lindy Hensley, Treasurer; Rita Evers, Secretary

Other board members: Dr. Adam Davis, Claudia Huelson, Trent Low, Tom Means, and Ralph Miller

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.