Clad in apple costumes, Phoebe Whalen, 9, center, and Abigail Diekerson, 10, right, serve samples of caramel dipped apples at the Apple Squeeze in Lenox
Clad in apple costumes, Phoebe Whalen, 9, center, and Abigail Diekerson, 10, right, serve samples of caramel dipped apples at the Apple Squeeze in Lenox held Sept. 22, 2012. (Stephanie Zollshan)
Tuesday October 9, 2012

LENOX -- The town's Chamber of Commerce, targeted by some in town government for not executing the tourism-oriented events and marketing mission deemed crucial to the local economy, is pushing back.

In a conversation at the nonprofit's Lenox Library office, Executive Director Ralph Petillo blamed the chamber's "negative PR" on its failure "to toot our own horn. We're alive and well, moving forward and doing what we can for the members first."

A high priority, he emphasized, is to "create a good relationship with the town rather than having the chamber be asked to do something after the fact." He said the organization intends to approach Town Hall to suggest "events that we think would be good for the town to be interested in" and explain why.

He listed Chamber-supported attractions such as a proposed week of the Gilded Age in early September, a Harvest Festival based on the Apple Squeeze, the early December Lenox Caroling Festival, a potential health-and-wellness festival from late January through February, the Berkshire Cycling Classic that began last May, and a June car show expanded beyond a British focus.

In an email message, Katherine Lockridge, president of the organization since January, stated that she has studied comparable chambers around the county and has found that the Lenox group -- representing an estimated 75 percent of the town's businesses -- is performing along the same lines, although "a few things need tightening up."

She termed chamber critics as "a very vocal, though small, group of naysayers."

Lockridge contended that "the chamber is the favorite whipping post for certain individuals in Lenox. And when some of those individuals don't get their way, they pull out their whip, find a weak spot, and go for blood."

Membership, which averages $375 a year, has been growing steadily, according to Petillo, and now stands at 170 businesses.

"I think we're on a very positive upturn on member participation and the increase in the number," he said.

"There's this perception of the chamber being non-functional when it's just the opposite," Petillo contended, adding that the membership level in Lenox is comparable to other tourist towns in New England.

"It's been a long history of negativity," he said. "I don't ever recall the chamber standing up for itself. There's pride in this chamber and its board.

"The chamber has to walk the line between members, non-members and the town," he added. "It's all about what people perceive a chamber should be."

"We're open to moving forward, to shaking hands with the town and becoming more involved with it," Petillo said.

To increase representation from businesses along the busy Route 7 & 20 commercial corridor north of town, Petillo said the chamber is forming a council to pursue that goal. Another priority is to increase year-round business activity in Lenox Dale.

Petillo pointed out that the chamber is becoming "more globally oriented" with an enhanced website designed by Kevin Sprague's Studio Two Internet and PR company. The site, lenox.org, has drawn increased traffic, town government leaders have praised it for its design and content.

He noted that non-members are being given a no-cost, phone directory-style presence on the site, in response to requests from Town Hall.

He suggested that the chamber has been bypassed on some occasions when the town has forged ties with promoters for new off-season events. But Petillo acknowledged his organization often moves ahead on projects without consulting the town.

As for the chamber's fi nances, Petillo said the annual budget is about $70,000, with $36,000 in debts for brochure and website advertising still to be collected.

"That's where we are every year at this time," he said. "That money will come in; it always does. It's the cash-flow situation."

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.