One of the most valuable and often overlooked functions of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce is the role as the region’s most powerful champion for the business community. The Chamber is uniquely positioned at the crossroads that connect businesses of all sizes and industries, non-profits, and local and state government to tackle the tough issues and get things done to ensure businesses can succeed and thrive in the region.
“I see our Chamber as both a respected facilitator and a strong networking hub,” said Mark Freeman, President, SteelFab, Inc., located on Crawford Street in Fitchburg. “The Chamber staff advocate and facilitate movements in an effective way, and they are excellent at using their relationships within local and state government and in the community to get the right people to the right meeting so we can get things done.”
And Freeman should know. As a longtime business owner in Fitchburg, Freeman, along with dozens of other business owners, worked with the Chamber to achieve a single tax rate in the city of Fitchburg following years of daunting work with little progress. “We never really made a ton of progress over the years going from a spilt tax rate to a single tax rate, but experienced incremental reductions,” he said.
Following more than 30 years of fighting what Freeman called an “uphill battle,” the Fitchburg City Council adopted a single tax rate with an 8-2 vote in 2019. “I believe we achieved this because the Chamber was very active to not only engage with candidates running for office, but by also then inviting the candidates who won their respective seats to meet with us as business owners and hear our concerns. The Chamber really leaned into this for us, and I think this achievement is a huge development for the city and region.”
Not only did the Chamber help facilitate discussions to achieve the single tax rate, which affected all businesses in the city, it also helps individual and clusters of businesses who experience a challenge and need some extra advocacy.
Take Crawford Street in Fitchburg, which is home to more than 20 businesses and some one-and-a-half miles of telephone pole wires, all of which did not provide high-speed internet services until 2017. Up until then, businesses on this well-traveled road were forced to deal with unreliable and weak service which affected their operations and daily business tasks. “We really needed the high speed internet to make our businesses run smoothly, but we just couldn’t get it to work with our service providers,” said Freeman. “The Chamber reached out to Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale and other advocates to have the service providers take a fresh look at what we needed. In the end, Mayor DiNatale was able to help bridge the gap to obtain the service with the state and help us get the bandwidth we needed, and the Chamber never wavered in their commitment to help us.”
Freeman added that if the pandemic occurred when the former service was in use there likely would not be a business today. “Without the high-speed internet, we wouldn’t have been able to serve our customers by providing virtual inspections, use our systems and honestly just get work done, so we are happy to have the service and I know our neighbors on the street are happy about it as well.”
As Freeman pointed out, the Chamber is a “networking hub,” providing numerous opportunities through the year for members to come together at various events, forums and meetings. The goal with these programs is to make sure that members are informed and have a voice in the decisions that impact the communities in North Central Massachusetts. And, on occasion, the Chamber will also partner with other trade associations to advance an issue important to members or hire outside experts and commission studies on issues that impact the local economy and the future of the region, such as the current labor shortage.
In late 2022, the Chamber released a study, “Worker Shortages and the North Central Massachusetts Region: Engaging Hidden and Future Workers to Grow the Local Economy,” which was prepared by the UMass Donahue Institute’s Economic and Public Policy Research group, a leading provider of applied research to help clients make more informed decisions about strategic economic and public policy issues. Focusing on workforce growth challenges and solutions, the study outlines workforce barriers related to geography, skills, structure, and work-life balance, and includes short-, mid- and long-term recommendations for how to grow the North Central workforce.
“The study was intended to help shape public policy and advance thoughtful solutions to the labor challenges faced by our members,” said Travis Condon, Public Affairs Manager, North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. “The challenges and issues are very complex and have long-term implications for the region’s future and our ability to compete for talent.” One of the recommendations require all different community stakeholders in North Central to work together to meet the regions work force needs.
“As manufacturing is such a huge percentage of our local regional employment base, I’ve worked with the Chamber to engage with high schools and other grade levels on providing opportunities to tour our facility, offer mock job interview experiences, and bring mini-trade shows to school cafeterias during lunch to help spark an interest in the field,” said Freeman. “We owe it to the students to know of the opportunities available to them and the Chamber does a great job of collaborating with local businesses, superintendents and guidance counselors to bring these opportunities to our students and ultimately, help us meet our work force needs.”
Freeman noted the Chamber’s WorkNorthCentral Jobs Board as another great resource for employers and job seekers alike. “This website offers a job seeker the opportunity to view any number of jobs at a variety of employers, which is helpful for us and for those looking for work.”
Tamar Russell Brown, founder of Sitka Creations, a graphic design studio in Shirley providing clients with creative and effective graphic and web design and visual communication services, said she believes she would not be where she is today without the Chamber.
In addition to her location in Shirley, Russell Brown used to have a gallery on Main Street in downtown Fitchburg. The Chamber helped secure funding in concert with NewVue Communities to open the Gallery in 2016.
Upon opening her gallery on Main Street, she realized the sidewalk was uneven and needed repairs as many people in the older population were visiting the gallery and she was worried the sidewalk was not safe for her visitors. “I called the city and didn’t get the immediate attention we needed so I reached out to Chamber who helped get the issue resolved,” she recalled. “The Department of Public Works came out and fixed my sidewalk, so it really shows the power of the Chamber to help small businesses get what they need.”
When it comes to guiding its advocacy efforts, the Chamber only needs to look to its member-led Government Affairs Committee. This non-partisan committee meets to discuss local, state and federal priorities and is comprised of members from diverse industries. It is responsible for reviewing pending issues for their impact, developing positions and advising the staff and Board on programs that inform and encourage member involvement in its government affairs initiatives.
In addition to the Chamber’s highly popular Legislative and Candidates Reception held each fall before Election Day and an annual Congressional Luncheon which compliments the quarterly Good Morning North Central breakfast series, the Chamber offers opportunities throughout the year to bring together the region’s elected officials, and business and community leaders to discuss topics that matter to them.
An active participant in many of the Chamber’s events, including a recent interview during the Good Morning North Central breakfast series, State Senator John J. Cronin has seen the work of the Chamber firsthand and the environment of collaboration to bring stakeholders from multiple areas together to achieve a common goal.
“From the North Central region to Beacon Hill, the Chamber is known for being an influential voice and an organization that gets things done,” said Sen. Cronin. “As a representative of several of the communities that make up North Central, I appreciate that my constituents have advocates at the Chamber engaging with policy leaders who impact businesses on a daily basis, and I always have my door open to the Chamber to help make connections and build relationships to help our businesses succeed and thrive.”
And businesses are thriving. Russell Brown just celebrated her 20th anniversary in business. “The Chamber knows you and they are such a huge part of the community by bringing so many of us together for after-hours events and networking,” she said. “If you are a member of the community and not involved with the Chamber you would have no idea of the many opportunities that exist for you.”
“This Chamber is where the rubber meets the road,” said Freeman. “There’s a million things the Chamber does, from resources for local businesses to help financing startups and they do it exceptionally well which is evidenced by the many awards and recognitions over the years.” In 2021, the Chamber was a finalist for “Chamber of the Year in the U.S.”
But, as Freeman adds, “We know we have one of the best quality chambers anywhere in the country.”
As a member, you have all of the Chamber’s resources and connections at your fingertips, and we encourage you to take advantage of that benefit and stay connected. If you have an issue or policy concern that you believe the Chamber should be aware of, please reach out to Travis Condon at 978.353.7600 ext. 224 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.