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Chamber at a crossroads

Executive director resigns over conflicting vision of role of a business association in the Deerfield Valley

Citing irreconcilable differences, the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce and its executive director have parted company less than three months after he took the job.

The differences between Executive Director Philip Gilpin Jr. and the Chamber’s board of directors hinged on disagreement over the organization’s future direction following a meeting where Gilpin introduced some ideas that would have changed the Chamber’s focus and direction (see sidebar).

“The current Chamber board’s philosophy is clearly focused on the local social community first; business commerce is a distant second,” Gilpin wrote in his Dec. 20 letter of resignation. “The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.”

Gilpin’s resignation struck as “a total surprise,” said board president Cheryl Rothman.

But in hindsight, Rothman added that the board had concerns about how well Gilpin and the chamber meshed.

Gilpin said he could not justify collecting member businesses’ dues and town monies to fund chamber programs that he concluded would not benefit the valley.

In his three-page letter, Gilpin wrote, “Our valley is in economic trouble. For a decade, the labor force has been stagnant and business owners have been working harder and harder to make what feels like less and less money.”

The Deerfield Valley sits in the geographic center of more than 60 million tourists, “yet this Chamber’s current operating procedures barely reach 50,000 people outside of our area,” Gilpin wrote.

His decision came on the heels of a Dec. 16 meeting with chamber businesses and board members at Dover’s Matterhorn Inn.

At the meeting, Gilpin introduced suggested changes and ideas.

A few of the business owners expressed excitement at Gilpin’s suggestions to use online marketing sites like LivingSocial to bring visitors to the valley.

Gilpin also suggested that the chamber release its hands-on responsibility for popular valley events like the summer Blueberry Festival and autumn Vermont Life Wine and Harvest Festival.

Board members, however, scheduled a meeting for the following Monday, saying they would tell Gilpin what they decided.

Two sides to every story

“It just didn’t work, unfortunately,” said Rothman about Gilpin’s time as executive director.

Rothman said the board loved Gilpin’s ideas and planned to implement a few, like a discount program for valley visitors.

The board, however, disagreed with Gilpin’s management and communication styles, she said, adding that he also needed to understand that the executive director reported to the board of directors.

Gilpin believes that the board viewed membership dues, supplemented by monies from the towns of Dover and Wilmington, as an entitlement, “not because they did the work.”

According to Gilpin, 60 percent of every chamber member’s dues dollars went toward financing valley-wide events like the Blueberry Festival. Gilpin said that board members told him that the labor-intensive events were “feel-good,” not intended to bring in money.

Feel-good doesn’t change a lagging economy, said Gilpin.

“I cannot, in good faith, go to work every day at the Chamber knowing that I am not being allowed to use the members’ resources and money that they have invested in us, to the best of our ability,” Gilpin wrote in his resignation letter.

“I cannot sit idly by while the valley continues its economic decline, knowing that our time and money can be better spent growing it,” he added.

Rothman disagrees with Gilpin’s view.

Valley festivals like the Blueberry Festival or Vermont Life Wine and Harvest Festival rank in the top 10 events in the state, she said.

“The Blueberry Festival is not meant to make money,” she said. “It’s meant to bring visitors.”

According to Rothman, the Vermont Life Wine and Harvest Festival, the first festival to which Vermont Life magazine has attached its name, does make money.

She admits that the festivals do take the chamber staff’s time, but she reminds people that “that’s why we hire them.”

An amazing group of volunteers also fuel the festivals’ successes, Rothman said.

“Bigger festivals won’t get the valley out of the economic situation it’s in,” Gilpin said.

Half of the chamber board’s lack of willingness to change stems from its unfamiliarity with the workings of today’s economy, which now uses venues like Facebook and Twitter, he said.

A safety and comfort with the “old ways of doing things” comprises the other half, Gilpin said.

“We have a good powerful base of talent here that we can use if we really focus on using the talents of younger people,” Gilpin said, adding that younger people want to stay here and become the next generation of leaders and business owners.

Gilpin’s parents own the West Dover Inn on Route 100. He joined his family to help restore the 1846 inn after two years couchsurfing at friends’ homes while he developed a charity aimed at natural disaster mitigation for people on low incomes. He also spent five years in Los Angeles as a business affairs analyst at HBO.

Moving forward

Both Gilpin and the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce have taken steps to move forward in their separate ways.

Gilpin hit the ground running in the past week, saying he is launching a new marketing firm, Green Mountain Valley Marketing, which will provide services much like the ones he had suggested as benefits of Chamber membership.

The private marketing company will provide businesses with the opportunity and tools for growth, he said.

The new firm will boast a team of designers and professionals inmarketing, public relations, and advertising, Gilpin said.

“There are good, talented young people around here who want to work,” Gilpin said.

The new company will “work for hire” rather than take dues like a chamber of commerce, he said. This way, business owners only pay for the marketing, events, or work they want to pay for, Gilpin said.

He added that the new marketing company was not out to destroy the chamber, but rather just work with business owners.

The Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce has hired Adam Grinold as interim executive director.

Grinold’s stint as executive director will run for a minimum of three months beginning Jan. 9, said Rothman.

“I’m thrilled,” she said.

According to Rothman, Grinold served on the chamber board from 1996 to 2005 with some of that time spent as president. He also serves on the Wilmington School Board of Directors and is one of the driving forces behind WAHOO’S Eatery in Wilmington.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #133 (Wednesday, January 4, 2012).

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