New Hampshire’s chambers of commerce ‘challenged’ by Covid, but they keep their eye on the ball

With major revenue sources drying up, they seek financial help
Karmen Gifford 001

Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, says her organization’s sources of revenue ‘are drying up’ during the pandemic.

Chambers of commerce across New Hampshire have been at the forefront of efforts to help businesses weather the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, but despite their own straitened finances, they find themselves without a place in the queue for assistance.

From the onset of the pandemic, the chambers have served as liaisons and brokers between the state agencies in Concord and local business communities. Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said that for weeks officials from between 20 and 25 chambers regularly have taken part in a call, initially with Gov. Chris Sununu and since with Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs. “We are a conduit,” she said, “a channel of communication between the state and businesses.”

“We’re challenged,” said Tim Sink, longtime president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, “but I’m excited by the role we’re playing. Chambers are convenors. We bring people together.”

He said the chamber has applied technology to tailor its traditional role to the extraordinary circumstances. As what he called “the voice of business,” the chamber has gathered, curated and distributed information to help its members navigate the crisis.

“It’s been an ‘aha!’ experience. It’s exciting,” Sink said, “but we’re not making any money doing it. and the numbers don’t add up.”

‘It’s very frustrating’

Some 40 chambers of commerce are scattered around the state, slightly more than half of them employing salaried staff and the rest drawing on volunteers.

“Most operate on a shoestring with little or no cash reserves,” said Sink. He explained that dues from members represent about 55% of revenues and proceeds from events about 45% to fund his chamber’s annual operating budget of $750,000.

“Revenues from dues are drying up,” said Gifford, who said that her 500 members pay between $199 and $350 in annual dues based on the size of the business, representing about 60% of annual revenues, while events, like golf tournaments, account for the balance.

Likewise, John Nyhan, president of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce, said that many of his 500 members are in the hospitality sector — restaurants, lodging and entertainment venues — where operations have been severely affected by both the initial closures and subsequent restrictions.

Moreover, the chamber, serving a seasonal destination, draws a major share of its revenue from summer events, especially the annual Hampton Beach Seafood Festival, which Nyhan said funds a quarter of the budget.

Wendy Hunt, president and CEO of the Greater Merrimack-Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce and chair of the New Hampshire Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, said the chambers, which operate on “barebones budgets,” have reduced staff and trimmed hours to make ends meet. “It’s very frustrating,” she said. “We’ve never worked harder to put out information. And not just to members but to all businesses in our communities. But,” she stressed, “we need some financial help.”

This week, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that $60 million in federal funds distributed through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act would be designated to nonprofit organizations. The funds will be managed and distributed by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and Community Development Finance Authority.

However, the wording of the CARES Act appears to permit funding to some nonprofit organizations while denying it to others, including chambers of commerce. Nonprofit organizations pursuing charitable purposes are classified by the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(3)s. Chambers of commerce promote the business interests of their members, which are profit-making enterprises, without engaging in any profitable commercial activities themselves. They are classified by the IRS as 501(c)(6) nonprofits. And, according to the conventional reading of the CARES Act, are not entitled to a share of the funding it provides.

For some time, chambers have been urging the state’s congressional delegation, the governor and state lawmakers to take steps to ensure that the chambers, along with other 501(c)(6) organizations — including the state’s 10 regional economic development corporations — are eligible for federal financial assistance. At the same time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has urged Congress to lift restrictions on 501(c)(6)s in legislation to revise the Paycheck Protection Act under consideration in both the Senate and the House.

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