Mail Tribune

Mail Tribune

A slow business cycle might have provided an excuse to take a pass when the call to join came from the local chamber of commerce.

Mark VonHolle, vice president at S&B James Construction Management Co., found otherwise as he worked the phones in the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County's recent membership drive.

VonHolle made 45 calls during Member Madness and signed up 38 takers as the local chamber pushed its membership to more than 1,700, enhancing its status as the state's largest chamber.

The initial two-day push netted 176 new members with nearly two dozen more joining the fold since then. The chamber's base dues are $265 a year, rising to $1,000 or more for larger organizations.

"Very few people said they weren't interested," VonHolle said. "Some people said they couldn't afford it right now."

VonHolle, who surpassed the previous listed national record for recruitment by fellow chamber member Randy Jones, was ready for such a response.

"I gave the analogy of the farmer who buys 20 percent less seed, because he can't afford the usual amount," VonHolle said. "But what happens later? You harvest 20 percent less. This is something you need to do, even in a down economy."

The Medford/Jackson County Chamber has been ranked near or at the top of the state's membership lists for several years. Chief Executive Officer Brad Hicks said over the past decade, the Medford/Jackson County Chamber has grown from 1,000 members and a $600,000 annual budget to an organization with a budget of more than $1.2 million.

Hicks links the growth to how the local chamber responded to three surveys during the past decade. The first covered eight Western states and the second, 14 Western states.

"It became a matter of what do you want the chamber to do for you, rather than here's what the chamber can do for you," Hicks said.

The local chamber replicated the survey here about five years ago and the results were in line with the previous studies.

"Three surveys were enough to convince us," Hicks said. "It was astounding how similarly businesses felt about what they wanted chambers to do and how well they thought we were doing them. Our members felt like we were doing the right things right, but wanted to firm up or simplify the language we were using."

Respondents thought chambers used too much government speak, he said. As a result, the local chamber adopted four strategic objectives to lay out its course:

Creating a strong local economy, wherein the chamber put its muscle into recruiting America West (now US Air) to the valley; securing legislative backing and funding for the new Rogue Community College/Southern Oregon University building; and supporting the downtown Medford Commons project.Promoting the community through the Visitors and Convention Bureau.Networking through the promotion of relationships.Representing business issues through lobbying and political action.

"It's interesting how much stronger the desire for that has gotten over the past five or six years at chambers everywhere," Hicks said. "Members are saying, 'I don't have time to know what's going on at city hall, the courthouse or the state capitol.' There is a greater understanding among small businesses that what goes on in government affects small business and they want chambers to take care of that."

Yet, even with the new adherents to the chamber, there are plenty of stones to turn, Hicks said. In Jackson County alone, there are perhaps 9,600 businesses.

Your Chamber Connection of Fort Worth, Texas, tracks growth for some 400 chambers in 23 states. The firm showed a 20 percent gain for the Medford chamber in 2006, followed by a 12 percent jump this year.

"Our new initiative," Hicks said, "is to have 2,010 members by 2010."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.