Saturday 24 March 2018 03:58:10 PM

Why Big Towns Need A Chamber Of Commerce
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… including Downpatrick.

For a number of years, I have watched the business community in the Downpatrick area struggle against a wide range of adverse circumstances with at times little comfort as they turn the keys in their front doors each morning.

Downpatrick as the County Town of Down is failing to represent itself on the various fora that are so important to ensure that their business life continues to grow and prosper. Whatever the reasons for not promoting a chamber in the town, it must be recognised that the hard working business community face a plethora of challenges from Brexit, recession, banks being less forthcoming, high rents and rates, declining footfall due to out-of-town supermarket shopping and the phenomenal increase in on-line shopping, and the poor infrastructure of the town as manifested by its traffic-jammed roads and many decaying buildings.

Newry Mourne and Down District has a number of chambers of commerce, but there is not one in Downpatrick.

A working and well supported Chamber of Commerce is essential if the business community is to move forward into a new economic era from one full of anxiety and uncertainly, but nevertheless, one where there should be strength in numbers. This shift represents a move from the economic individualism of the many retailers and small business people, towards a more corporate shared culture and sharing of ideas and building relationships of trust.

For this reason, I’ve listed some of the main driving points why I think we need a chamber in Downpatrick. I can hear some saying: “Ah, but its been tried before and failed”. My response is, “What lessons can we learn from this going forward as a business community?”

Below are some bullet points as to what I think the advantages of a chamber of commerce are. It is not a definitive list.

*  the main aim is to help promote the local businesses in a given area.

And, a chamber aims to:

*  provide a simple legal structure, a voluntary network where each member is equal on paying an annual subscription.

*  generate combined responses to address current and pressing issues eg roadworks, floods.

*  act as a conduit for business information filtering through from various bodies such as Retail NI, Hospitality Ulster, the FSB, Newry Mourne and Down District Council, the various government departments and its Ministers, and many other local agencies.

*  provide a collective voice for public relations functions.

*  provide an interface for shared discussion and policy exchange.

*  provide an interface between the community and the business sector.

*  creates a platform to support local businesses where possible regarding legal compliance  eg GDPR.

*  creates a platform to promote your business. eg at business fairs.

*  provides an opportunity to network with other local chambers.

*  removes the isolation that a small business person often experiences.

*  adds social value to its activities which may be difficult for individual businesses eg charity cheque presentations.

*  provides in times of hardship and emergency, an infrastructure to respond.

*  provides an opportunity to be in a business directory.

*  creates and advanced communications, news, and social media platform.

*  creates partnering opportunities.

*  creates opportunities to run and manage events beneficial to members and the community. eg event management.

*  build confidence in individual members. eg public speaking.

*  develops useful skill areas and training that a member may not have had in the past eg chairmanship.

*  a chamber can run a local annual business awards event to help profile successful businesses and show good practice.

These ideas are basically off the top of my head. But you will no doubt understand that it is a no-brainer actually having a chamber of commerce in your area.  The benefits are very considerable.

A chamber should always have fairness and equality as the pillars of its work and abide by an agreed equality agenda.

However, there are a couple of difficult downsides that also need to be considered in evaluating whether to move ahead towards a Downpatrick chamber.

The first I would describe as any negative issues emerging around social structure and values eg dominant groups, groups being isolated at the expense of others, groups with conflicting aims etc. Sometimes these are not always apparent at first glance.

Secondly, there may be cultural issues such as the religious makeup of a community or particular families dominating the roost, or even changing patterns of values with a changing population eg the number of EU migrant business people in the area and their inclusion in a chamber. And of course, the old chestnut, Men v Women. Women too need to be fully comfortable in a chamber and fully represented. But there are a wide number of complex cultural issues if one were to dig down deep enough. These are just examples.

Or thirdly, there may well be an inordinate amount of political interference… and coming up to any local election, there is always the tendency for a candidate to get subjectively over-involved in the role of the chamber.

Coupled to all of these too may be a partisan local media interest working at times occasionally against the general positive thrust of the chamber. News sells, whereas some of the mundane business of a chamber may be less newsworthy.

Once you have done your SWOT analyses, cost benefit analysis, needs analysis and worked out that the proposition is financially do-able, and put the final justification down on paper for all to see and read, there remains one vital question… do you as an individual business person have the personal time and commitment on balance to join this chamber of commerce and make it work? Without effective and representative business people it is but a shell and will not last.

After all, Newry, Warrenpoint, Kilkeel, Newcastle and Ballynahinch have working chambers of commerce making valuable contributions to their business life and and adding value the communities they work in.

Downpatrick is the missing link in this local network of chambers in the Newry Mourne and Down District Council area.

At some stage in the future… even the near future… there may well be a public discussion to bring forward a new chamber in Downpatrick and hopefully that will bear fruit next time round.

I hope the above points are of use in helping local business people make up their minds.

As Daniel Defoe said in his famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, three hundred years ago: “No man is an island.” And it should be said too, “And no woman is an island.

So, with 100% of the population covered, I think the Downpatrick chamber stands a chance of survival… once it is up and running.

We are still struggling with the issues of conceptualising the chamber… but the discussion is now opened up for public debate, comment and scrutiny.

Let’s see where it takes us.