The Independence Chamber of Commerce is bringing on Independence Economic Development Council President Tom Lesnak as its president. The two organizations announced a one-year management agreement on Thursday.
“This is not a merger in any way, shape or form,” Lesnak said.
Lesnak replaces Hap Graff, who retired as president and CEO of the chamber in late 2017. The chamber had announced a plan to search for a new president, but Chamber Board President Jonathan Zerr said a chamber committee took a look at the pros and cons of a deeper relationship with the EDC.
“I think it provides us with some exciting possibilities – I really do,” Zerr said of the new arrangement.
The two groups said the change should bring some efficiencies of operation. EDC offices already at the chamber office on the north edge of the Square will be moved into empty space on the chamber staff side of that building, freeing one wing of offices for uses that could range from helping entrepreneurs to being leased out to a company, Lesnak and Zerr said. Zerr said he unaware of any plans to change chamber staff.
That use of office also could help with Lesnak’s goal of giving the chamber a higher public profile. He said if the chamber is visible in the community, businesses will come to it. He also said the chamber will have to focus on member needs.
“We’re going to deliver services in a different way that’s on members’ schedules, not the chamber’s schedule,” Lesnak said.
Zerr also has focused on, in his phrase, “the deepening of the political relevance of the chamber.” That includes taking the lead on pressing for the passage of the Independence use tax – basically applying local sales taxes to online sales – that goes to the voters April 3. The chamber says this is an issue of basic fairness to local brick-and-mortar stores, that is, fairness for many of its members. The new management agreement should help the chamber better focus on political involvement, Zerr said.
Another goal, Lesnak and Zerr said, is to reduce the chamber’s debt, a track it’s been on for about four years. It’s on pace to erase that debt in 2019, and Zerr would like to see the group build up some reserves.
Zerr also said deferred maintenance on the chamber’s 22-year-old building will need to be addressed.
“The building has a degree of age on it at this point,” he said.
The two groups have similar roles but also have crucial differences. The chamber has members; the EDC has investors. The chamber is a private organization to serve its business members, and it runs a number of community events such as Santa-Cali-Gon Days. The EDC gets substantial funding from the city of Independence to pursue economic development such as attracting new businesses to town.
“We’re all trying to grow the economy of the community,” Lesnak said.
But he said keeping the groups separate is important.
“The chamber needs to have the ability to advocate on behalf of their members,” Lesnak said.