When was the Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce founded and how have you grown in size and prominence since that time?
The Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce was established in 1941 as the Bloomsburg Chamber of Commerce. Over the years, the Chamber’s membership base grew, and the name of the organization was changed to The Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce to reflect our membership base across Columbia and Montour counties. In 2009, the Chamber integrated the Berwick Chamber of Commerce to become the only chamber of commerce in the two counties.
What are some of your chamber’s crowning achievements and what goals are you working to achieve in the future?
The Columbia Montour Chamber has supported a number of significant development projects over the years through administration of an economic development corporation. In November, a celebration was held marking the final sale of lots at a business park just off Interstate 80 in Columbia County. The park is already home to a Fairfield Inn, and construction of a home design center and a separate building inspection training center are currently underway. Development of the park was started by former Columbia Montour Chamber President Ed Edwards and construction completed under the administration of his successor, Fred Gaffney.
The Chamber has also been a leading advocate for flood protection for the Town of Bloomsburg, which is adjacent to the North Branch of Susquehanna River. Following historic flooding in 2011 that impacted several large employers, dozens of small businesses and many more homes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers walked away from a proposed flood protection system that had been studied for decades. At risk of losing at least one of those major employers, the Chamber was part of a coalition that helped secure nearly $27 million in funding for a flood protection system for two manufacturing facilities. That project was completed in 2016 and the expansion of that system to protect more of the Town of Bloomsburg is currently underway.
In the summer of 2018, several large businesses in another area of Columbia County faced unprecedented flooding from summer storms. The Chamber coordinated meetings with local and state officials to explore the circumstances around that event to mitigate future risk. The regional council of governments is now coordinating a storm water management study for the area.
While these larger projects tend to get the most public attention, the majority of the Chamber’s membership base is comprised of organizations with less than 15 employees. Supporting all types and sizes of organizations is critical to the economic vitality of Columbia and Montour counties, as well as the stability and growth of the Chamber. With a member retention rate in the last year of over 93 percent, the Columbia Montour Chamber is proud of its ability to serve the general business community.
The success of businesses is also dependent on the success of the communities where they are located. People want to live in areas that are safe, supportive and vibrant. While the Chamber has long been involved in efforts to enhance Columbia and Montour counties, it is currently partnering with other community-leading organizations to identify and advance several strategic opportunities to strengthen the area. This process is intended to change conversations from “wouldn’t it be nice if…” to “how do we…”.
What are some of the leading issues that your members regularly communicate to you about?
Without question, the number one issue that our members are challenged with across all sizes and segments of business is workforce recruiting and retention. To quote Chamber president Fred Gaffney, “In my nearly 18 years in the chamber profession, I cannot remember another time when there were employers were so challenged to fill openings.” While unemployment numbers are near record lows, the economy could be even stronger if employers were at full capacity with their workforce.
Assisting with this critical need is a number of other organizations. The Chamber is working with area human service agencies to help employers understand and address barriers to employment such as child care, transportation and substance abuse issues. In partnership with the local United Way and CareerLink, the Chamber is piloting a soft skills program for people who are unemployed and underemployed. The incentive for participants is that Chamber members supporting the program will guarantee that every participant will be offered at least one opportunity upon completion of the four-session course.
Employers are also understanding that hiring and retaining employees requires more than good wages and benefits. Successful organizations are spending time on their culture, and understanding the motivations of their employees. Several Chamber workshops related to hiring younger generations and managing a multi-generational workforce have been well attended, with requests for additional programming.
Professional development for employees is a component of organizational culture. In addition to the long-standing traditional leadership program, the Chamber has added several successful employee development programs in the past year. In collaboration with Bloomsburg University, a management and leadership certificate program was launched in the Spring of 2019 with over 80 people having completed the five-session course. Cohorts are being offered each Spring and Fall, and participating employers are requesting an expansion of the programming. A day-long event focused on women’s leadership held in October became the Chamber’s third largest membership event in its first year. Individual workshops on leadership and management have also been well received.
A longer-term strategy for supporting members related to workforce is helping area high school students understand the quality opportunities that exist in the region. The Chamber’s foundation works with area school districts to connect students and educators with area employers in a variety of ways. Businesses are always eager to host tours, speak with students and teachers, and offer more immersive experiences. Several have made significant investments in equipment for career and technical education programs.
How are some of the ways that you work alongside the PA Chamber to help keep your members informed and engaged about state government issues that could impact them?
The PA Chamber is a valued partner in our collective efforts to represent the business community. We regularly share information from the PA Chamber with our members about legislative and regulatory issues being discussed in Harrisburg. Communications on the overtime eligibility threshold and minimum wage discussions are examples that allowed us to provide timely, reliable information to our members. If there’s a specific issue we need to discuss, staff is responsive, and easy to speak with.
They also recognize the importance of in-person representation. Staff participates in our annual state legislative briefing for our members. PA Chamber President and CEO Gene Barr was one of the featured speakers at our Early Child Care Summit in early 2019. The PA Chamber also partners with our statewide association, the Pennsylvania Association of Chamber Professionals, to hold the annual Chamber Day at the Capitol. Representatives of chambers from across Pennsylvania meet collectively with legislators and administration officials to discuss issues and policy. This high level of engagement with the PA Chamber enhances our advocacy efforts by providing information, fostering statewide coalitions and strengthening our credibility.
The shared focus on workforce in recent years is also an important area of collaboration. Our Foundation Director, Jeff Emanuel, participated in the U.S. Chamber’s Business Leads Fellowship Program, where chamber representatives from across the country discussed workforce development challenges and opportunities. The PA Chamber has convened follow up meetings with those who participated from Pennsylvania and we look forward to continuing to work together to strengthen the Commonwealth’s workforce development infrastructure.
What would you suggest that visitors to your region experience?
Knoebels Amusement Resort is a special place not just in our region, but in all of Pennsylvania. Knoebels is America’s largest free-admission park, with over 60 rides including two world-class wooden roller coasters, a pool, and waterslides. Whether just for a day trip or an extended family vacation, Knoebels is well worth the drive and an unmatched value.
The park has been owned and operated by the Knoebel family since it opened in 1926. In recognition of their many years of success, and importance to the region, Knoebels was awarded the Chamber’s Large Business of the Year in 2019.
Each year in late September, over 400,000 people attend the Bloomsburg Fair, making it one of the largest in the state. Started in 1855, the nine-day event endeavors to preserve its agricultural heritage while offering exhibits, national-level entertainment, rides, and plenty of great food. The Fairgrounds hosts other events throughout the year.
Regardless of the time of year you may be in the region, consider a show of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. This professional theatre company is in its 42nd season of live performances which vary from Shakespeare to local history to holiday classics for the entire family. The restored Alvina Krause Theatre is located in downtown Bloomsburg for easy access to casual dining and live theatre.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.