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How to build a new economy?

Former director proposed aggressive outreach to younger messages, new emphasis on local economic support

Executive Director Philip Gilpin Jr.’s recommendations for taking the Mount Snow Chamber of Commerce in a new direction met with mixed reviews at the chamber board meeting, Dec. 16, 2011.

During his presentation, Gilpin discussed using technology to attract more tourists to the valley, reducing business costs, and reallocating chamber staff’s time.

The mixed reviews exposed cracks in the cement of the working relationship between the board and Gilpin, who resigned Dec. 20.

In a separate interview, conducted prior to his resignation, Gilpin wondered why many people in the valley seemed to hesitate when it came to efforts to make the region’s economy grow.

He admitted that his Dec. 16 recommendations demanded a new mindset that not everyone present warmed to.

Gilpin also said he was not out to prove that the past business or chamber actions were wrong.

Noting that both the economy, and the tools for doing business, have changed, “at what point will we be allowed to change?” Gilpin asked.

In his letter of resignation, Gilpin cited his issues with the board like a lack of focus on the growth of local commerce, the conducting of conversation out of public view, and the ineffective use of member businesses money.

“As much as people like to focus on the juicy resignation stuff, I’d like to find a way to keep the primary message about my time at the Chamber focused on the vision-of-the-future presentation that I gave last Friday,” he wrote in a later email.

A new future?

On Dec. 16, Gilpin told the business owners and board members that he envisioned the valley community growing economically stronger and more prosperous.

Those efforts to increase commerce would require bringing more visitors to the area while upping the number of new businesses and long-term residents, he said.

“We sit in dead center of an interesting geographical region,” Gilpin said. “Few places can claim this.”

According to Gilpin, 60 million people live within a six-hour drive from the Deerfield Valley, and he urged the Chamber to market the region to them.

Draw a circle around the Deerfield Valley as a center point, and that area contains Montreal, Boston, and New York City.

About half of the people within that circle are between the ages of 18 and 50, members of Generation X and Generation Y.

These people grew up with computers, are willing to swap some salary for quality of life, and blend commerce with their social life through their use of sites like Facebook, he said.

But the majority of the Deerfield Valley population, however, is older than 50, not comfortable with online shopping, and think only Chickadees twitter.

The valley also lacks the culture and social activities marking it as a fun, hip place, which would keep a younger generation from leaving, he said.

The Chamber needs to rethink how it reaches Generations X and Y, said Gilpin, who advocated using companies like LivingSocial or Groupon to bring bus groups to the area.

Such companies work with businesses to offer deals in bulk. Groupon employs a carrot-and-stick strategy by advertising these deals and requiring that a minimum number of people participate.

Customers who want the deal then have an incentive to use social media like Facebook and Twitter to urge their friends to participate.

Through a pilot program with LivingSocial, Gilpin said, the Chamber and LivingSocial sold 212 bus trips from New York City to the valley.

Four lodges sold out in 72 hours of listing the trips, he said. The program pulled in about $35,000 in commerce for the valley and took the Chamber a week to organize.

Increasing the valley’s overall revenue was key to increasing employment, he told the audience.

For the past decade, Gilpin said, the area’s labor force rate “was pretty flat,” with Wilmington gaining 99 new jobs over 10 years and Dover 29.

Today’s 21st-century, technology-based businesses fit in this valley, Gilpin said in a separate interview.

Gone are the days of tearing up the environment and building an industrial complex, he said. Now, people can run international businesses with 10 people sitting in a room typing on laptops.

Refocusing the chamber

Gilpin suggested reallocating the duties of the chamber’s paid employee, who now organizes events like the Vermont Life Wine and Harvest Festival and Blueberry Festival.

Instead, he said, the role of that employee should be to market the valley and to manage economic development projects like opening a business incubator space.

Stressing that the festivals should not disappear, Gilpin urged the chamber to relinquish the full responsibility of signing every vendor, hanging every flag, setting up every portable toilet.

The chamber barely breaks even financially when the cost of staff hours are subtracted from the revenue, he said. Furthermore, Tropical Storm Irene cancelled the Wine and Harvest Festival’s fourth year.

Gilpin’s recommendation to pass on the valley festivals concerned some board members who had not seen the executive director’s recommendations prior to the meeting.

Chamber board member and former President Lisa Sullivan said the events represented revenue, no matter how small, and missing from his recommendations was how those monies would be replaced.

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

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