Originally published on Albany Patch
The Albany , like so many ventures these days, is shuttering its Solano Avenue storefront in favor of more virtual operations.
The move will free up much-needed resources for expanded outreach and development, Chamber members say, and could strengthen its presence in the city.
But while the new move could invigorate the organization, its transformation might also be seen as a consequence of the city’s overall business climate.
As of June 1, residents, businesses and out-of-town guests will no longer be able to walk into the Chamber office, at 1108 Solano Ave., for answers to their questions. Interested parties will need to interface with a Chamber gone virtual, an experiment aimed at expanding services and saving money.
“We will lose our on-street presence, and a little of the small-town ambiance that comes with having a visible Chamber office,” wrote Chamber Executive Director Winkie Campbell-Notar in a recent email. “That said, we will gain a lot more.”
With about 40 percent of the Chamber’s budget allocated to maintaining a storefront, freeing up those resources will allow it to spend more on programs and other efforts to benefit members, Campbell-Notar said.
Liberation from the office will also allow more direct contact with the community, Campbell-Notar wrote; the Chamber plans to hold office hours throughout the city twice a week.
This greater ability to connect with the community is something Executive Director knows much about. He starts his day taking a stroll down the avenue, talking with business owners and attending to the happenstance of the day. The association has no office, but Cain has no problem connecting with the neighborhood . He said the Chamber may benefit from a similar approach.
That said, the move reflects a problem facing the business community, in the form of what some say has been a lack of city support for local business, Cain said. For example, the city has no one at the helm to drive or foster economic development, he added. (El Cerrito has several such positions, Cain said.)
“The Chamber of Commerce is a victim of the overall commercial climate in the city of Albany,” Cain said. “It’s an unfortunate thing, but it is what it is.”
The circumstances leading to the decision to go virtual were mainly economic, according to Campbell-Notar. The office activity simply didn’t justify the monthly rent, she wrote.
The loss of a key city subsidy also impacted the Chamber’s cash flow; over the past three years, city assistance dropped from $20,000 a year to nothing, due to the , according to the Chamber.
The Chamber’s presence on Solano has helped businesses over the years, said City Manager Beth Pollard. But, she said, the move will free the group from the financial and logistical considerations of maintaining a storefront.
“A lot of organizations are changing the way they do business,” Pollard said.
The Chamber, formed in 1935, has had a presence on Solano for 50 years, according to the organization. It serves as an advocacy group for local businesses, and also has organized and hosted many community events on the avenue. The Chamber has about 150 members, many of whom are small and independent businesses.
“We are proud that we have been able to maintain a pretty steady membership during the recession,” Campbell-Notar wrote, “and we look forward to growing our membership now that the tough economy has eased a bit.”
At a send-off reception for the Chamber on May 25, members and longtime Albany residents celebrated the organization and reflected on its past.
“It’s always been here,” said , a lifelong Albany resident. “That’s my memory of it.”
, a former Chamber board president, recalled another board member, some 20 years ago, who used to greet passersby on Solano.
“He used to have a pet chimpanzee, and he used to sit at the front and shake our hands,” she said. “He used to bring doughnuts.”
Okawachi said she was sad to see the storefront close. She recalled that during her tenure, the organization used to answer a lot of questions from the community about housing, churches and other topics related to life in Albany.
“We figured that we were saving the city money, but there aren’t the volunteers to keep it running like that anymore,” she said. “It’s just a different time. Things have changed. You have to change with the times and the budget.”
During a short presentation, Chamber officials reassured those who stopped in to share wine, sandwiches and cake Wednesday night.
“The office is closing, but the Chamber is still going on,” said its board president, Joey Luera of . “That’s the important thing.”
Additional reporting contributed by Emilie Raguso.