Over the last several months, Williamson Inc. has worked hard to help local businesses find ways to keep operating during the coronavirus pandemic, but the chamber has taken a financial hit as well.
The chamber has fought to help small businesses secure relief funds from the federal government, but chambers of commerce couldn’t themselves access those funds. Williamson Inc. has hosted dozens of free, virtual events sharing information and solutions with business owners, but has lost the revenue that in person events would have generated.
Despite those challenges, Williamson Inc. CEO Matt Largen said the chamber is OK. It has a rainy day fund, but hasn’t had to dip into that yet.
"Obviously, we've lost out on some event revenue, but we've really been focused on the value that we're bringing to our members in the business community,” he said.
The chamber adjusted its budget to account for no new members signing up during the pandemic, but 37 companies have joined since the start of the virus outbreak in Tennessee.
Williamson Inc. has two divisions. The economic development side focuses on entrepreneurs initiatives, helping existing businesses grown and bringing new businesses to town. The chamber of commerce side advocates for local businesses and hosts training and networking events.
The economic development initiatives are funded mostly by a group of about 200 private companies who give money to the organization. Public funds from cities and the county make up the remainder.
Dues paid by Williamson Inc.’s 1,300 members cover about 60% of the budget for the chamber of commerce side. Events, often sponsored by local companies, make up a significant chunk of the remaining revenue. That’s the part of the budget that has suffered the most.
“We had to postpone Disney Institute. Outlook Williamson is typically a 400 plus person event. We've had to postpone that,” Largen said. “You're losing out on revenue from both sponsors and attendees.”
There are some proposals to help chambers of commerce. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to make chambers of commerce eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, an initiative originally intended to help businesses and nonprofits pay employees.
On June 2, Gov. Bill Lee announced a grant program using federal funds to support small businesses. Chambers are not eligible for that program, but in a statement, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said he hopes to find funding for chambers and nonprofits soon.
While Williamson Inc. appears to be financially stable right now, Largen said that he has been in contact with other chambers around the country and that many are struggling.
Largen said he’s looking forward to the day when people will feel comfortable gathering large groups again. That will help the chamber recover some lost revenue, but he also said it’s simply an important part of doing business.
“We've done all the virtual events, but nothing replaces being able to be in the same room and build or solidify relationships,” he said. “You can't do that over Zoom. Face to face will always be some level of business development.”
Until then, Largen said the chamber is focused on making sure businesses have the information and resources they need to stay stable during a pandemic.
On its website, the chamber has posted a list of outdoor meeting spaces, suppliers for protective equipment and example letters for furloughing or laying off employees.
Williamson Inc. has posted guides to help businesses navigate video conferencing software and switch to a remote workforce. The website offers mental health resources and information about financial relief available through the U.S Small Business Administration.
“We really focus on what we can do for the community,” Largen said. “I've always thought if what you're doing is important and matters memberships will follow because a company sees you as an indispensable resource."