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Wednesday, 14 December 2011 21:19

Chamber hopes to regain footing with new director

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After several years without a full-time promoter, the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce plans to bring back an executive director to help the valley rebound from a recession fraught with business closures.

“We need that presence,” said Teresa Smith, president of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “There has been a little bit of a loss with not having someone work there full-time.”

Four years ago, former chamber director Lynn Collins left to become the executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. After her departure, the Maggie Valley chamber chose to save money by not hiring a replacement.

“We decided to try to act without an executive director to try to put some money in the bank,” Smith said.

Instead, Smith took on some of the directorial duties until the chamber finances turned around.

“We are operating now on a positive note,” Smith said.

The chamber will not have to foot the entire salary for the new director on its own, however. The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority last month approved a $15,000 allocation to the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce to cover part of the new director’s salary.

The committee charged with filling the director position has not yet decided on a salary for the position, said Jan Pressley, head of the search committee. The remainder of the salary cost will come out of the chamber’s general budget.

The Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce has a $150,000 budget this year — a sharp decline from the $300,000 budget it had in 2007. The decrease is due in part to a drop in chamber membership among businesses.

This year, the chamber has about 170 members, down from 220 members five years ago. The decline in membership is due largely to the economy.

“A lot of the businesses have gone out of business,” said Jena Sowers, the visitor’s center manager for the Maggie Valley Chamber.

Restaurants, attractions and performance venues have closed their doors. And, of course, a large number of Realtors and contractors have left the housing trade, Sowers said.

“It was sad because when we would get the letters from them dropping out, they said if they ever go back in business they would rejoin,” Sowers said.

The loss of members made it difficult to afford the executive director salary — even though the recession was perhaps the time when the business community in Maggie needed a full-time leader the most.

The chamber has also been hurting from a loss of funding from the tourism authority, which it once relied on heavily.

The tourism authority subsidized basic operations and overhead of the chamber and visitor center to the tune of $64,000 a year, compared to only $29,000 a year now.

That number is inching back up with the recently-approved $15,000 earmark from the tourism authority to help cover the director’s salary. The funding will come out of a special pot of room tax dollars designated for tourism promotion in Maggie Valley.

 

The face of Maggie businesses

The chamber has received seven applications for the executive director position, and the search committee expects to hire someone in January.

The director will oversee marketing, the daily business of the visitor’s center, work with other entities, including town officials and the lodging association, and be present at various meetings.

Because she also runs the Maggie Valley Inn and Conference Center, Smith could only devote some of her time to the chamber whereas a full-time director can focus all of his or her energy on the job.

“I think the biggest obstacle that I had was being able to be in attendance at a lot of meetings,” Smith said. “I think that just having that presence out there … will be an advantage.”

Like many small towns in the U.S., Maggie Valley has battled business closures, high unemployment and low economic growth during the past several years.

Businesses closed, leaving fewer chamber members and less dues money, which in turn prevented the chamber from hiring a director to help fix those very issues.

The lack of a chamber director also forced the town to pick up some of the slack by hiring a festival coordinator to continue to bring events to Maggie Valley.

Chamber of Commerce members seem to agree that a full-time director could only help Maggie Valley.

“It can’t hurt,” said Dan Mitchell, owner of Laurel Park Inn.

During the past several years, with the closure of the amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky and Soco Gardens Zoo, Maggie Valley has “sort of died,” Mitchell said.

Laurel Park Inn usually closes during the winter but will remain open after a bad business year, he said.

It will take collaboration between business owners to revive Maggie Valley, Mitchell said.

“When you bring (a customer) in, you’re helping the valley,” he said.

Because her business Nutmeg Bakery is relatively new to the area, Brenda Schwartz said she is not sure what the chamber has done in the past but wants to see Maggie Valley expand beyond motorcycle rallies.

“I’d like to see more business development,” Schwartz said. “It needs to be a diverse group.”

Since October last year, at least nine new businesses moved to Maggie Valley. Four qualify as bars. But the new ventures also included a hair salon, an antique shop and grocery store.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, has seen several directors come and go during her business’ more than 40 years.

“I do think we need a director,” O’Keefe said. “I would want them to be out in the community.”

The director should be a regular face around town and in businesses, especially those that are currently struggling, and should hold marketing seminars for its members, she said. Maggie Valley businesses need to work on cultivating a repeat customer base — something that has helped her business through slow times.

“Give people what they want, and they will come,” she said.

The director should also reach out to businesses that are not chamber members, or rather possible future members, and paint a rosier picture of Maggie Valley’s future, O’Keefe said.

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