Southington chamber grappling with decline in membership, staff turnover

Southington chamber grappling with decline in membership, staff turnover

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SOUTHINGTON — Former and current officials cite a major dues hike for declining Southington Chamber of Commerce membership along with other decisions made since the departure of former president Art Secondo in 2015.

Membership in the Southington Chamber of Commerce has declined by about half over the past four years, according to Lisa Jansson, the chamber’s former events and communications coordinator. She left at the end of May.

Some business owners reconsidered chamber membership after the cost went from $225 per year to a three-tiered structure ranging in price from $325 to nearly $1,000. Services that came with the former membership fee, such as holding grand openings, are now only available to the higher tiers of membership, Jansson said.

Previous and current chamber officials agreed that the price change had contributed to the membership losses. Matt O’Keefe, an attorney and chamber board member, said the price of $225 hadn’t been increased in 13 years.

Liz Hyatt, a former executive director, said the price increase was particularly alarming to smaller businesses.

“They’re definitely in transition,” Hyatt said of the chamber.

Theresa Malloy, owner of Paul Gregory’s on Center Street, cancelled her chamber membership a month ago and joined the Merchants of Downtown Southington Association, which costs $125 per year.

“It’s just too much money,” she said of chamber membership. “For what you’re paying, what’s the give back?”

Criticism, turnover

Jansson no longer works for the chamber and plans to move out of the state in a few months. O’Keefe said she was let go at the end of May for violating the chamber’s complaint protocol.

Jansson said the chamber lost about 30 members recently after the organization announced in April that Dawn Miceli, Town Council vice chairwoman, would be board chairwoman. She’s been on the board for five years.

“The chamber is (businesses’) voice to the town. When the town is heading up the chamber, they’re afraid to say anything,” Jansson said.

O’Keefe said the chamber has lost eight members since Miceli took over chairmanship of the board and that none listed her council involvement as a reason for leaving. The board approved four new member businesses at its meeting Monday.

Taylor Crofton, the chamber’s most recent executive director, resigned in May. She replaced Hyatt, who was in the position from July 2015 until October 2017. Secondo, former chamber president, left his position after an agreement with the board in 2015.

Jansson said Hyatt and Crofton were “bullied constantly” by the board, which held them responsible for the membership decline.

Hyatt declined to comment on that characterization.

Crofton said she left due to a disagreement over vision.

“I saw the Chamber going one way and the board of directors saw it going another. It became clear we were not going to agree and I could no longer stand behind that vision,” she said.

Jansson said her communications with members and others about Miceli’s two roles were construed as a complaint. She wasn’t upset to leave the chamber due to the environment.

“It’s a board problem. It’s bad,” Jansson said.

Miceli declined to comment for this article, saying board members were deferring comment to O’Keefe.

O’Keefe said the chamber board sets policy and doesn’t run the organization on a day-to-day basis.

“The board hasn’t done anything to decrease the membership. The board is a volunteer board. The board relies on its paid employees and staff to carry its mission,” he said. “It’s not the board’s responsibility to maintain the membership. We have a paid staff that does that.”

The chamber has had leaders, such as Secondo, who were involved in local politics without issue, O’Keefe said. Secondo was a Democratic town councilor.

“We represent the business community of Southington. We do not represent any political party and don’t have any political affiliation,” he said.

“There’s not a single member who’s come to me indicating that there’s any concern about politics,” O’Keefe said.

He declined to comment on personnel matters.

Effort to regroup

Last Friday, the chamber’s last employee left to take another position. Jon Hallgren, sales and marketing coordinator, said his position wasn’t filled yet but that someone was chosen to manage the chamber office.

A woman at the chamber Monday said she was a temporary replacement and declined to be named.

Despite losses recently, the chamber has also gained members to maintain its membership level, Hallgren said.

Crofton said Monday that she’d heard all her former staff had left.

“My hope is that the chamber can regroup as fast as possible,” she said.

O’Keefe said the search for an executive director is underway.

Secondo declined to comment on recent changes at the chamber but said the executive director’s job was a unique one.

“To be the head of the chamber of commerce in a community like Southington, you have to have a passion, you have to have a love for the town. It’s not a normal 9 to 5 job,” he said. “Until you find that person it’s going to be a struggle.”

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