The Evolution of a Small-Town Chamber in the 21st Century
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Submitted and JJ Kaplan
The Zionsville Chamber of Commerce has seen a period of rapid growth over the last decade, and as a result, it has evolved from volunteer and part-time staffing to having a full-time executive director, office manager and member support administrator. Its most recent addition was an event coordinator, all of which report to the chamber’s board of directors.
The chamber has called a few locations along Elm Street “home” over the decades and is now moved and settled in at its permanent residence within the Zionsville Town Hall. We sat down with Tracy Phillips, executive director of the chamber, and discussed how the chamber has remained relevant over the decades and how it plans to evolve going further into the 21st century.
“As the chamber moved into its new home at Town Hall and were unpacking, we found several items packed away, including the original certificate of incorporation from 1961,” Phillips shared. “Much like moving a home or any business, it gives you the opportunity to discover things again. It is important that as we move forward, we don’t forget where we started and what brought the charter members together that night in 1961.”
The chambers of the past operated on a very low-tech level because they obviously didn’t have the technology that has become available in the last decade. Today’s chambers still advocate for signage, zoning and businesses issues but are now engaging in other economic development discussions that are relevant to today’s business climate.
“The purpose of a chamber of commerce has morphed over time,” Phillips affirmed. “Even though things have changed over time, we’re still serving our business community. We are a servant organization and are here to serve you and take care of your business issues. The networking component has been consistent within the Zionsville Chamber, but now, there are additional opportunities that help promote chamber members’ businesses as well as their events, fundraisers, job fairs, etc.
“With the use of social media and websites, we are able to engage a much larger audience, though old-fashioned meet-and-greets are still advantageous methods of getting to know one another’s businesses. It’s about having a mix, and one method is not better than the other. Our job is to make sure that our members have easy access to all of the resources that are available to them.”
As the chamber continues to grow and looks toward planning for the future, the board approved the development of the chamber’s brand-new website that is slated to roll out just in time for the chamber’s annual award banquet.
“This is another big step for the chamber,” Phillips enthused. “This [website] is the standard, and we have to be at the standard and above. We are also looking at our partnerships and who we want to partner with. Our board has made the decision that we want to be with our peer organizations and aspirant organizations, such as OneZone, Westfield, Noblesville and Indy Chambers. We want a cross-pollination of businesses and not a duplication of efforts.
“As my friend and colleague with the Westfield Chamber, Jack Russell, president, said, ‘Business has no boundaries. You set them for yourself.’ And I like what Mo Merhoff, president of OneZone, said, ‘Chambers are a very collaborative group of people.’ We are all working for our businesses today and actively planning for tomorrow.”
Phillips stressed that while they will continue to steward the town’s annual events such as Street Dance, which will feature Polka Boy in 2018; Brick Street Market; and Christmas in the Village, an annual holiday celebration that looks like Norman Rockwell came in and painted a live scene throughout the town; the chamber will also be heavily focused on economic development.
“The work that my predecessors and the board have done with Creekside Corporate Park is remarkable,” she said. “DK Pierce is there now, and Kite Harris is going to be developing there, so we’re now going to be running full speed on that. The town has declared the airport area as an economic development area, so that’s the next mission for us. We will work with the developers and with the town on infrastructure, trying to see what kind of combination of businesses would best serve the community.”
When asked about the future of Zionsville and if it would look vastly different 20 years from today, Phillips replied, “About 15 minutes into the 2017 Street Dance, I had a gentleman approach me and say, ‘This is what Zionsville is all about. We’re all gathering on Main Street on the Saturday before school starts, and what is it that has brought us all together?’ The man then looked down at his feet and said, ‘It’s these bricks. These bricks are what make us different from any other community.’ That is true, and that is never going to change.
“If you look at our Christmas in the Village and other events that occur in this town, what makes us different is authenticity. We are not building something new. We continue to accentuate what we already have in Boone Village, Creekside Corporate Park and in the future developments. However, 20 years from now, our small town Main Street will still be our anchor. I believe that it always will be.”
For more information on the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce and a complete listing of its 2018 events, visit zionsvillechamber.org.