By Rigoberto Cardoso and Patricia Dorfman
The inner workings of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce might seem irrelevant to some, but the organization’s health is more important to our future than one might think. The Chamber’s long-time slogan, “A small town in the big city” aptly suggests that we all are dependent upon each other in more ways than just business.
The organization was built mid-century by a group of people with energy and altruism, and has since then been the center of public life.
The leaders made a lot of money here and spent a lot of money here. They played hard in the way that trusted associates do (often in a politically incorrect “ratpack” fashion). But they also helped build parks, schools, the post office, a bank, parking under the elevated train line—as well as give to the needy. They stuck together.
Sunnyside is on the brink of enormous change and we can all sense it. It feels as though powerful and wealthy people have taken a look at Sunnyside and decided to carve it up like waffles. We need to keep a voice of our own or we will be overwhelmed by the clamor of the interests of commercial real estate brokers, big business and long-term landowners along our rezoned town center. Long-term quality of life for residents is at stake.
Of course, property owners are entitled to make their profits as well as brokers and developers. A chamber is not anti-commerce.
But residents need a varied commercial landscape, not just stores which can afford giant rents. Small businesses make Sunnyside charming and need a place and chance to flourish. Professionals and merchants worry they will be displaced. Residents worry they will not be able to afford to live here. The already begun building turnovers and coming rebuilding will be easier for locals if done more in plain sight.
We need an independent group not connected to the city, expressly concerned with small business. The BID (AKA Sunnyside Shines) was created by Chamber members and does a great job at its official four-fold mission: holiday lights, security, cleanliness and promotion. But the BID cannot speak for residents and local businesses as well as we can for ourselves. The BID is a property owners organization, designed to keep up property values. Only two out of the 17 BID board members are small business owners as per its proscribed make-up. There is also just one resident board member permitted, as per its make-up.
Even if it wanted to advocate strongly on a local specific topic, our BID would be constrained by the city, which regulate all BIDs. You or we cannot join the BID. Furthermore, it serves a specific location. The Chamber is for the wider area, and invites all, from residents to small business owners.
Want a say in what is happening? Join the chamber as an individual. The monthly lunch is a regular public forum in a friendly setting. Bring your business cards and promote, or bring your initiative and get something started. Have an idea to help yourself or others? The chamber is a good place to start. No board member or officer is paid, but many find getting involved opens up business opportunities.
Last month, a variety of local business owners expressed similar wish lists:
1) Hold monthly meetings at different venues so as to showcase more businesses, and sometimes in the evenings. Of course, the excellent Dazies will be one of the places to be showcased, too.
2) Put the focus on small business and local concerns.
3) Members can be from anywhere and all are welcome but specify that officers who often speak for all must have an office here or live here.
4) Invite speakers or officials to speak on topics which entertain or directly relate to small business needs — quarterly business card exchanges, topics such as social networking, search engine optimization, press release writing, local history, subjects such as new health care rules for business.
5) Board outreach to more diverse business leadership.
6) Rehire Luke Adams when possible, repost his historical photos and schedule outings.
7) Among events suggested were golf outings, and bus trips.
As early chamber members knew, recreational events held by the chamber have a serious component, not just to raise funds. Those who can find some common ground and have fun, despite different backgrounds, are more likely to do business with each other and even be happier and healthier. More than ever, we need a place to speak freely on a local level. As our area grows and inevitably changes, we can unite to create prosperity, work together for the common good, and keep our small town in the big city.
(Cardoso has owned and run Pronto Car Service for 20 years and has served as Treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce for seven years. He is originally from Ecuador. Dorfman is a local artist and designer, a former VP of the Chamber but did not run for a seat.)