LENOX -- Businesses and nonprofits based outside the town’s borders are now eligible for full voting memberships in the Lenox Chamber of Commerce.
After several years of sometimes heated debate and two failed attempts last year, the measure was approved at the recent general membership meeting held at the newly renovated Cranwell Resort ballroom -- which featured a tasting menu provided by nine food purveyors.
"As my fourth-grade teacher used to say, the third try is the charm," said chamber President Katherine Lockridge, who said she was "thrilled" about the 35-6 vote approving the bylaw change.
The Lenox chamber was the only one in the county to limit its membership to in-town companies and organizations. Lockridge had exhorted the members to open the membership rolls in order to enhance relationships among businesses in and out of town, noting that increasing revenue for the chamber was not the primary goal.
"Having a closed membership means there’s a lack of cooperation and communication with other people in our community," Lockridge told the business owners at the meeting. "We’re all so connected now and that helps us promote our businesses and put on events by collaborating with other businesses in other communities. These are small communities and finances are stretched terribly thin."
Also leading the charge for the bylaw change was Canyon Ranch General Manager Reggie Cooper, who stated that "we spend a lot of time working beyond borders in terms of finding our guests.
Cooper touted the value of new chamber members from other towns as adding resources in the form of dues as well as contributing talent to the Lenox organization. "I can only see it as beneficial and helpful," he said. "It’s very unusual to see a membership that’s so tightly restricted geographically."
Former chamber President Kenneth Fowler, owner of the Shear Design hair salon and chairman of the Lenox Select Board, voiced support for opening up the membership, describing the Berkshire County economy as a community of businesses.
"I think people are afraid of this because they see it as letting in outsiders," Fowler said. "I see it as an opportunity to form new relationships and to strengthen our position. It isn’t just about Lenox, it’s about Berkshire County, having some kind of unity and some kind of plan for all of us to move forward."
Cranwell Resort General Manager Carl Pratt, a member of the chamber’s board of directors, said the change would help raise funds for promoting the chamber’s website, the town and all of its businesses, and also would break down barriers.
He offered evidence that allowing out-of-town lodging establishments to join the Lenox Chamber would not take away business from in-town hostelries, given the dominance of online travel sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and TripAdvisor as well as Google.
Speaking in opposition, Frank Newton, owner of the Summer White House bed-and-breakfast, questioned the legality of the proposed change because of occasional Lenox taxpayer financial support to the chamber. But chamber leaders said they had determined that the concern was unfounded.
According to the organization’s bylaws, a 20 percent turnout of the chamber’s 100 paid-up members was required for the quorum. The chamber has a total of 180 members, said Executive Director Ralph Petillo. An estimated one-quarter or more of the businesses in Lenox do not belong to the organization.
For many years, the Lenox chamber has been torn by internal divisions. Town government leaders have declared that the chamber should be in the driver’s seat for marketing tourist attractions instead of the Select Board and its events committee.
But, for the most part, harmony prevailed at the gathering. After the vote, Billy Soto, owner of the Village Inn and an outspoken critic in the past, hailed the outcome as a new beginning for enhanced cooperation not only at the chamber but also between Town Hall and the business community represented by the organization.
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