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Country capitalism.

Rural chambers of commerce roll up their sleeves

Think of chambers of commerce and images of pancake breakfasts, Christmas dances, gift baskets for New Year's babies and appreciation days spring to mind. But beyond the razzle dazzle that brings people into the street are organizations of economic importance and substance. Rooted in the community, supported by community-based businesses and guided by local leaders, the province's chambers of commerce are at the heart of economic development in rural Manitoba. They are the developers of strategic plans, lobbyists for new business and promoters of existing businesses.

Sandy Nattrass, president of the Treherne Chamber of Commerce and owner of Fashion Fabrics & Variety Store says, "We can no longer depend on a volunteer economic development committee to respond to economic issues. Treherne is a small agricultural community with a population of 750. We need to be proactive. We plan to hire a part-time economic development officer."

Improving the community's profile has been the first order of business. Three massive stone roadside signs, visible from quarter of a mile away, are positioned at three different entrances to the community. The scale and workmanship of the signs is comparable to the tourist markers traditionally located outside large metropolitan areas such as Winnipeg. Nattrass is working with management of Manitoba Hydro and her 38 chamber members to illuminate the three roadside signs by 1993.

MacGregor, another small agricultural community, with a population of 800, is also facing challenges similar to Treherne. Demographics indicate that 72 per cent of the population are from the "thirty-something generation" while the remainder are retired farmers.

Hugo Preun, president of the MacGregor Chamber of Commerce and area sales manager of A & M Soil Service (1975) Ltd., believes that MacGregor has three assets: location, resources and recreation. The community is located on the TransCanada Highway between Brandon and Portage la Prairie, and two railroads dissect the community. MacGregor is situated on natural gas reserves, is served by an ample supply of water, and offers year-round recreational options.

"Our chamber, like Treherne, is planning on playing an active role in the future of MacGregor," says Pruen. "We are presently evaluating our community resources and determining our future direction."

Forty-five minutes east of MacGregor is the community of Portage la Prairie with a population of 15,000. The community is more diversified than Treherne and MacGregor. It is the home of institutional firms, government agencies, food manufacturing and small retail operations.

Portage la Prairie has experienced numerous economic setbacks over the past five years including the closing of the Campbell Soup Company plant and the Canadian air force base. The Portage Chamber has played a proactive role in attracting new business.

T.J. McEwen, president of Portage la Prairie Chamber of Commerce and president of Threshold Technologies, an agri-food consulting firm says, "We did what no other Manitoba community did before. We enlisted the services of the Capital Hill Group, an Ottawa-based lobbyist firm. The firm helped us recruit Cal-West, a textile manufacturing company. Cal-West is now occupying the old Campbell Soup Company (building)."

Portage la Prairie, with a membership of 230, is managed by Lorraine Rae, a full-time paid professional executive director -- one of 12 full-time staff outside of Winnipeg.

"Having a paid staff person allows the chamber the opportunity to play an active community role," says McEwen. "We can offer a variety of community role," says McEwen. "We can offer a variety of community outreach programs such as: fraud-alert, Christmas Retail Incentive, and a three-day trade fair. We also are committed to recognizing our outstanding business people, athletes and farmers."

The chamber is in the process of developing a long-range strategic plan which includes studying the tax structure of the city and how it impacts on business development.

Forty minutes north of Winnipeg is the rapidly-growing community of Stonewall. According to the 1992 census, 30 per cent of the 2,995 population is between the ages of 30 and 45 years old. Stonewall is the fastest-growing town in Manitoba.

Jim Cruise, president of the Stonewall Chamber of Commerce and manager of the Royal Bank says, "The community is an ideal location to live due to its close proximity to Winnipeg, the full range of professional and retail services and lower tax structure."

One of the challenges facing the community is the shopping patterns of its new residents -- many of whom work and shop in Winnipeg. Stonewall retailers welcome the new residents. However, the community does not advocate Sunday shopping, a day in which these residents could shop local merchants.

An economic development committee supported by the chamber and the town responds to requests about Stonewall's industrial park. This volunteer committee is focusing on attracting light industry to this site.

The four chamber presidents interviewed look to the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce for information, networking opportunities, training, counselling and lobbying.

Norman Leach, the executive director of the Manitoba chamber, was hired in the fall of 1991. His mandate by the board of directors was to embark on a proactive marketing effort to increase membership. Leach says, "Most of the 52 members had not been visited by the executive director in eight years. In 1991/92 I visited 47 of the 52 chambers."

The publication Manitoba Focus keeps 60 individual chambers and their members informed about issues of mutual concern and challenges confronting individual chambers. The chamber polls members quarterly by packaging a survey with the publication. Since January 1993, four more communities have inquired about membership. "It takes three visits to complete the membership process," says Leach. "The vast distances between Winnipeg, where our office is located, and some rural communities is the greatest challenge in handling requests."

Another priority of the board of directors was to establish an identity with the media in Manitoba. One of Leach's first initiatives was to compile a media list. Once this effort was completed, he spent time meeting with reporters and editors. Leach often responds to media inquiries on topics like Sunday shopping. He also encourages rural chambers to work with their local media.

One of Leach's early challenges was to clarify the existing relationship between the Winnipeg and Manitoba Chambers. The Manitoba Chamber is the provincial chamber -- Winnipeg is one of the members. "We may disagree on small issues, but not on the major ones," says Leach. "For example, the Winnipeg Chamber has an established, solid working relationship with city government."

The Manitoba Chamber of Commerce under the leadership of Leach, is forging new alliances and enhancing existing business relationships. New partnerships include: The Canadian Manufacturers' Association, The Asia Pacific Foundation, Federal Business Development Bank and Workforce 2000.

The leadership of the 60 member chambers meet twice a year -- in May and October. Jack Wilson, acting president of the Manitoba Chamber and business manager of Manitoba Hydro's northern region says, "These meetings provide an excellent opportunity to network and exchange ideas first-hand. This year's meeting will be held May 13-15 in Thompson, Manitoba. The October meeting is a members-only function in which chamber members discuss both successes and failures.

"We encourage our rural chamber members to assume a proactive role in determining their future," says Wilson. "Several educational programs we sponsor bring business people to talk about business opportunities in the global market. We also manage the Superhost Program in cooperation with the Manitoba government. This program is a four-hour awareness training session for sales people."

With as many initiatives as possible underway, it is very clear that Manitoba's chambers of commerce are not only keeping up with changing times, they are ahead of them.
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Title Annotation:chambers of commerce boost Manitoba's economy
Author:Rockburne, Gail
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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