Chamber Coalition Shows Promise

    After years of working together on various projects, the Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, Muskegon and Holland area chambers of commerce have formed a coalition to better serve their members.

    The West Michigan Chamber Coalition was formed in February to bring the chambers together to work on Leadership West Michigan, staff training and development, regional advocacy efforts and shared diversity initiatives.

    The four chamber presidents, Cindy Larsen of Muskegon, Joy Gaasch of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg, Jane Clark of Holland and Jeanne Englehart of Grand Rapids, have been meeting once a month with the coalition coordinator, Pat Shafer, who is also the membership director at the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce and the executive director of Leadership West Michigan. While the chamber presidents have had yearly meetings to discuss their chambers, this is the first time they decided to create goals to work on together with all four chambers.

    “It’s allowed us to accomplish things that maybe as individual chambers we were not able to do,” Larsen said of the coalition.

    As budgets tighten and organizations have to find more creative ways to operate, Larsen said the collective effort of the chambers is helping to ease financial burdens on each chamber by sharing staff in their training, advocacy and diversity efforts.

    “It’s cost effective for us to work together in all of these areas,” she said.

    Englehart said the coalition gives the chambers a chance to utilize each chamber’s skills and experiences.

    “Our board is looking for us to be able to leverage the knowledge that other chambers have to be able to look at their issues and to be able to collectively represent all the businesses in West Michigan with a much more powerful voice,” she said.

    With 6,000 members collectively, the chambers represent many employers and employees, Englehart said. Bringing those numbers together creates a powerful group.

    “I think that we’re truly excited about the opportunity and that other chambers are willing to truly look at this as a coalition,” she said.

    Gaasch said while some of the chambers have worked together before on projects or programs, such as the Lakeshore Business Expo or the Lakeshore 504 program, the coalition opens the door to more opportunities.

    “This really gives us a formalized way to work together on leadership in West Michigan,” she said, adding that it also helps those members who are active in several chambers.

    Regionalism is a key word among the four chamber presidents.

    “We’re a region and we need to think and act like a region,” Clark said. “This provides the tools.”

    With the expansion of businesses from Grand Rapids toward the Lakeshore and within the various cities, Larsen said the region has changed.

    “From a business standpoint, it’s one market,” she said of the region. “Twenty years ago you may have had a local business, but now it’s global, regional or neighborhood businesses.”

    Though Grand Rapids is providing most of the staff for the coalition, Englehart said all chambers are equal in the partnership.

    “We can learn from what they’re doing as much as they can learn from us,” she said. “We just happen to be the ones who are going to staff it.”

    Englehart said now is the time for the coalition, considering the region and

    the current presidents.

    “It’s certain that with the chamber presidents that are involved now, there is truly a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to be open to other people’s ideas and have our boards support other organizations,” she said. “For whatever reason, the timing is right.”

    The coalition is led by the four presidents, the coalition advocacy steering committee and Shafer, who coordinates staff training and development and is the executive director of Leadership West Michigan, a coalition program which helps bring community members together to focus on regional collaboration. The coalition’s advocacy effort and diversity initiative are staffed by the Grand Rapids chamber.    

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