We’ve heard about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected local businesses. While some are thriving, many have laid off employees and closed their doors.
Some local chambers of commerce, which support those hometown businesses, aren’t faring so well either.
Mandy Alley, administrator and treasurer of the Greater Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, said she’s not sure that organization, which represents 92 businesses and individuals in and around the county seat, will be around in 2021.
“This year is looking pretty bleak for us,” she said. “There’s a big question whether we will be able to hold on until next year. And then when Jan. 1 rolls around (and membership dues are due), what will our membership look like? How many of our businesses will be able to exist, much less pay their membership dues?”
Alley said the pandemic forced the chamber to cancel its annual Hillsboro Homecoming and Festival, which contributed to the group’s financial woes.
“That’s our major fundraiser and it represents half of our annual operating expenses,” she said. “Because of that, we’re struggling.
“The homecoming and (associated) golf tournament bring in $12,000 to $14,000. We rely on that for our operating revenue. Our membership dues are due on Jan. 1, and that carries us through from January until May, and the festival gets us through the rest of the year.
“We don’t have a lot of revenue in reserve. We don’t have a tourism tax, we get no funding from the city, and we don’t have a nest egg.”
The county has four other chambers of commerce – the De Soto, Twin City Area, Arnold and Northwest Jefferson County chambers – which also are facing decreased revenue from member dues and fundraisers.
Because of those kinds of financial concerns, the Jefferson County Growth Association (JCGA) is sponsoring an online raffle to provide some financial relief.
“The chambers, and the JCGA, are hurting,” said Sharon Floyd, executive director of the JCGA. “This is a bad time to be in business, but chambers exist to support businesses, and we help support the chambers, because without them, there is no growth.”
The 50-50 raffle is limited to 1,200 tickets, which cost $50 each. If the event is a sellout, the raffle winner will pocket as much as $21,000, and with the second prize as much as $9,000. Drawings will be held for other prizes, such as a large-screen TV, a rifle and a three-month family membership to the Jefferson County Family YMCA.
Then, the county’s five chambers and the JCGA will split the remaining proceeds.
Winners will be drawn at 6 p.m. July 17 at the Villa Antonio Winery in the Hillsboro area and will be shown live on the JCGA’s Facebook page.
“We decided on a virtual drawing because of concerns with COVID-19,” Floyd said. “If you’re buying tickets through our website with a credit card, money doesn’t have to change hands. You don’t have to be present to win.”
Floyd said the organizations need the money right now.
“We’re all facing issues, because even if we have fundraisers still scheduled, we don’t know whether they will be held or how many people will participate in them,” she said. “None of us knows what lies ahead.”
The link to enter the drawing is jeffersoncountygrowthassociation.growthzoneapp.com/ap/donate/wXpjwAPG.
“Enter and spread the word,” Floyd said. “We want the pot to keep on growing.”
Alley said because chambers of commerce are not considered businesses and not considered nonprofit agencies, they don’t qualify for federal assistance through the CARES Act and other coronavirus relief efforts.
“People don’t really realize that the chambers are not considered a business in themselves, even though we help businesses,” she said. “If you want to help, write your congressman and ask them why chambers of commerce have been cut out of any relief packages, and that you want them included in the next one.
“There are 6,500 chambers of commerce in the U.S., and they’re all struggling.”
Jefferson County Executive Dennis Gannon said some help might be on the way because he and other county officials, with the help of Todd Tracy, executive director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Corporation, are examining how the county may distribute $26.4 million it received through the CARES Act.
“We’re thinking of ways we can help the chambers,” he said. “There is a lot to the rules of the act, but we are going to try to give grants to the chambers.”
Alley said her chamber’s board has decided against rescheduling the Hillsboro Homecoming and Festival or planning a different fundraiser.
“We won’t be able to have an event in the fall, because at this point, if we tried to have one, we could spend a lot of time planning something that won’t be held – no one knows what everything’s going to look like this fall – plus we’d be relying on businesses to line up as sponsors when they don’t have a lot of extra money too.”
Alley said the pandemic might result in other changes.
“If we’re able to survive the year, and I’m not sure that we will, the board will have to reconsider how we approach things. We may have to scale back parts of the Homecoming and Festival, and those parts that make money, like the golf tournament, the 5K run and the car show, we might have to hold as separate events so that in the future if we have a rainout or a pandemic, our revenue-generating events are spread over the calendar.”
Alley, who’s been with the Hillsboro chamber for 18 years, said this could be her final one.
“We’re there at the parades, we’re there at the ribbon-cuttings, but it’s a very real possibility we won’t be there at those things anymore.”
Sarah Greenlee, coordinator for the De Soto Chamber of Commerce, said her organization is facing similar financial worries.
“Money’s tight,” she said. “I had been working five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but now I’m down to eight hours a week. I understand. As of now, we don’t have any events to plan. We’re still figuring out whether to hold our Fall Festival in September.”
Greenlee said the receipts from the Fall Festival and a golf tournament that already was canceled make up about 70 percent of the chamber’s budget.
“We’ve also lost the Home Show and our spring banquet,” she said.
Greenlee said renewals for the chamber’s 115 or so members are due this month.
“We’re not sure how many we’ll get back,” she said. “Money is tight all over.”
Tonda Breeze, executive director of the Twin City Area Chamber of Commerce, said she expects that organization to survive.
“We haven’t collected all of our membership dues for the year, but that’s typical,” she said. “We send them out in November for a Jan. 1 renewal, but some have not paid, but you can’t really blame that on the coronavirus. That happens every year. But this year, it’s been more a difficulty to send out reminder notices because some may not have the ability to pay them.”
Breeze said she isn’t working as many hours, and the chamber’s office is open three days a week for four hours at a time – with an additional part-time employee called in when needed.
While the chamber’s board has called off its major event, Twin City Days, Breeze said the financial ramifications of that move aren’t as jarring as it is in Hillsboro.
“Twin City Days is not necessarily a big fundraiser,” she said. “We never intended it to be a revenue generator, but we have always wanted it to be a party, to bring our two communities together. We’ve always figured that any money we received from it was a bonus. But canceling it will have an effect on the local economy.
“We canceled it at this time because up until now, we had not spent a lot of time or money planning it, so because there is so much uncertainty as to what the world will look like later this summer, we thought it would be best to make the decision now.
“The major expense is the Saturday night concert, because we pay the featured band in advance, but this year’s band, Dr. Zhivegas, agreed to play next year, so that addressed a big expense.”
A grant from a tourism tax charged to guests who stay in Festus hotels helps pay for the expense of the headliner.
“But there are expenses involved with Twin City Days,” Breeze said. “Lining up things like waste management and portable toilets that we would need to put deposits on. And those are businesses, too, and hopefully if they know we’re not having Twin City Days this year, that will free up those dates for smaller events that they can cater too.
“It’s just the uncertainty of the situation. We may have gotten to September and we may have been able to have it, but you have to be prepared for a worst-case scenario.”
Terri Starwalt, executive director of the Arnold Chamber of Commerce, said she doesn’t believe her organization is staring down the barrel of extinction.
“So far, we’re holding our own,” she said. “We’ve even added a couple of new members recently.”
The Arnold group has 274 members, she said.
“We had a fundraiser in February, with the Flight Squad (exhibition) basketball game (at Fox High School). After expenses, we didn’t make a lot from it, but we made a little bit,” she said. “We had to cancel our annual Easter egg hunt, so we haven’t had a lot of money coming in.”
Starwalt said the chamber used to have its office in the Corridor 55 building, 112 Richardson Crossing, that the city of Arnold had leased until it was closed on April 30.
The city had allowed the chamber to house its office there for free.
“I’ve been working from home since then (the Corridor 55 closure), and while we’re not saving money, we aren’t having to spend money by having to go out and rent a place, that during COVID, we wouldn’t have open to the public anyway.”
But Starwalt said despite the lack of an office for the time being, the Arnold chamber is still active.
“We want people to know we’re still around and we’re still working for local businesses and our members in Arnold,” she said. “We’ll include information about what’s going on with our businesses on our Facebook page, and we send email blasts about announcements that a restaurant may have changed what it’s doing – like it’s now open for lunch or breakfast. I’m also asking our businesses to send in pictures of them being open and I’ll put together a slide show. We’re not going away.”
Starwalt said that even though she’s not worried about the chamber’s survival, that doesn’t mean the chamber is worry-free.
“A lot of small businesses are hurting – that’s no secret – and if they don’t make it, our numbers will certainly go down. And even if the businesses themselves don’t make it, some of them will lose employees, and that will be a concern for the businesses that are left,” she said.
Danny Tuggle, president of Northwest Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, said his group is keeping its collective head above water.
“We don’t have a lot of expenses, so we’re not hurting as much as some of the others,” he said. “We have part-time help one day a week and we don’t have a lot of overhead other than rent. We’re pretty much a volunteer-driven chamber.”
Tuggle said the group collects dues from its 100 or so members year-round, so its revenue is spread out.
The Northwest group planned four major fundraisers for 2020, and Tuggle said it’s a possibility that all will be held.
A golf tournament has been rescheduled for Oct. 3, and the chamber still plans to hold its awards night at the Fox Run Golf Club in Eureka in November.
The Harlem Wizards basketball exhibition was held in January at Northwest High School, and the fourth primary fundraiser, Tuggle said, was just completed.
“We sell planters in our Beautify the Boulevard campaign on High Ridge Boulevard, and we just finished that,” he said. “We place the planters in front of businesses for $50. But it was down this year, from 40 (planters sold) last year to about 20 this year.”
While not a true chamber of commerce, the JCGA supports businesses and it is also doing reasonably well during the pandemic, said Dan Govero, president of the group.
“Our board has built up some reserves of money, so we should be able to weather this storm,” he said. “We’ve had some fundraising events canceled, so we’ve lost some money on those, but we’re having conversations on how to replace those things.”
Govero said a legislative forum typically held after the Missouri General Assembly recesses recently went by the boards.
“That’s not a big moneymaker, but it is a public service that people really like,” he said. “We had our semiannual meeting canceled. Our golf tournament has been rescheduled for Oct. 2, and we’re trying to come up with ways we can hold it.”
However, as Floyd cautioned, everything is up in the air.
“We’ve had to cancel some events, and we’re not sure if our Bottleneck Bridge Ride (Aug. 16 in Festus-Crystal City) and the golf tournament will come off as planned,” she said.
Govero said his group recently unveiled a revised website that hopefully will help its 190 member businesses.
“The great feature about this new site is that it allows our members to link their websites onto ours,” he said. “I think people will really like it.”