Chamber prioritizes diversity and inclusion

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Danielle Walsh, the executive director of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, introduced herself at Guilderland’s State of the Town event in March at Crossgates Mall. Since then, she’s led the chamber as businesses coped with a shutdown to stem the spread of coronavirus.

GUILDERLAND — In the midst of a pandemic, it is not business as usual for the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce.

With a recent $10,000 investment from the Guilderland Industrial Development Agency, the chamber is planning to launch a community investor program that will ultimately return funds to local small businesses that apply.

In a separate initiative, as the nation is in the throes in a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd — a Black man, under the knee of a white Mineapolis police officer — Danielle Walsh, the chamber’s director, issued a statement that “we stand with the Black community of Guilderland and beyond.”

Walsh, who became the chamber’s executive director in January, told The Enterprise this week, “I think the most important thing that I have learned personally and continue to learn is that systemic racism affects so many more areas of our society then we ever could have thought and there is a lot of work to be done.”

Walsh, who is white, said she would like to start by “talking to more business owners of color to find out if there are challenges and issues where we could assist.” She does not know how many minority-owned businesses are chamber members. “We definitely have businesses that are owned by people of color and there is a lot in the town,” said Walsh.

She cited a July 9 Enterprise article about the Guilderland school district rising to the challenge of confronting systemic racism and said of the school superintendent, “I agreed with what Marie Wiles said, that this is about more than just the Guilderland Central School District; it’s about our larger community and this conversation has to extend to our larger community, and she welcomed everybody to be courageous and dive in.

“I would like to reach out to the school district and see how the chamber could be involved there and have that be a potential jumping-off point for us to the larger community.”

Walsh also said she’d be interested in learning more about Sarah Gordon’s initiative in the Hilltowns. Gordon is calling on local businesses to take a stand against racism by pledging — on a public, digital spreadsheet — to acknowledge racist behavior when it occurs in a business setting and to denounce the slogan “all lives matter,” which exists to diminish the anti-racist “Black lives matter” slogan.

Additionally, Walsh said, the chamber has recently drafted a strategic three-year plan and part of that will involve increasing the current 12-member board, which now has no people of color.

“This is where we want to create a well-rounded, diversified, inclusive board of directors that represents our community,” said Walsh. “It’s in that way that our board, which is the voice and leadership of the chamber will represent the entire business community.”


$10K from the IDA

The Guilderland Chamber has 325 members, said Walsh, and the majority are small businesses, with over 45 percent of member businesses with one to 10 employees.

Early on in the pandemic, Walsh surveyed chamber members and learned “there’s two main things they need right now.” The first is operating funds, which she said the chamber is not large enough to provide. And the second is help with marketing and promotion.

“This is an area where I really believe our chamber can assist,” said Walsh.

She envisions creating a program with the IDA funds in which companies can invest in the chamber. A portion of that will be used for the chamber’s operating funds and a portion will create a marketing cooperative fund.

Members would apply to the fund to receive matching grants for a variety of promotional projects.

“This is a very new idea for the chamber,” Walsh said.

She got the idea when she worked for three years, before coming to the chamber, for Discover Albany, a not-for-profit convention and visitors bureau that promotes tourism in Albany County.

Walsh modeled her idea on a program in Richmond, British Columbia that she learned of at a conference when working for Discover Albany.

“I thought, ‘That’s very cool’ … Businesses can fill out an application to be awarded a grant to help them bring in visitors … or market their business,” she said.

“I really wanted to find a way for us to give back and invest in the small businesses and nonprofits in Guilderland,” said Walsh.

She went on, “I believe businesses are going to be much more selective about where they invest and sponsor over the next couple of months or even years. It’s my hope that being able to show investors exactly how their investment will assist the business community will be a good way to garner support.”

The model also fits with what IDA funds can be used for since New York State law restricts the IDA from providing direct assistance to businesses. The Guilderland IDA’s mission is to assist in the enhancement and diversity of the economy of the town by acting in support of projects that create or retain jobs and promote private-sector investment using the statutory powers of the agency as set forth under the provisions of the state’s laws.


Pandemic fallout

Walsh became the chamber’s executive director in January, just two months before the shutdown of business across the state meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The chamber staff consists of just Walsh, who works full-time, and Carol VanValkenburgh, who works part-time. The chamber has an annual budget of $130,000.

Its funding comes from three sources: membership dues; event registration fees and event sponsorship; and shared work space from which the chamber collects rental income.

Nine members dropped outright since the start of the pandemic shutdown in March, Walsh said, with only one noting COVID-19 as a specific reason.

“Especially in April, we did see a decline in the amount of dues we were collecting,” said Walsh. She stressed, “We’ve been working closely with our members to try to keep them on.” For example, she said, members are allowed to pay dues in monthly payments of $20 or $25.

The biggest revenue loss, though, has been because of the chamber’s inability to hold events. The chamber’s largest fundraiser is usually its annual dinner in June. “We’re looking at holding it virtually but it’s not by any means going to bring in the typical revenues,” said Walsh.

Additionally, the chamber hasn’t been able to host its usual monthly events, like mixers or networking events.

As the state has its four phases of reopening, Walsh said, “We also have a little bit of a phased reaction from businesses … We are just getting through Phase 1, which is the survival phase for a lot of businesses. Over the next couple of weeks or months is when we’ll be able to see or get a sense from businesses whether or not they have to shut down.”

The chamber’s recently drafted three-year strategic plan has three major goals. The first, Walsh said, is to “enhance the procedural and organizational infrastructure to best prepare the chamber for future growth.”

She called this the plan’s backbone, which includes internal operations, policies, and procedures.

She also noted, “We’re planning in a time of uncertainty so it was very important to us that this plan would be adaptable and that it would be led by members in the business community.”

She said that all 12 board members are business owners and that the board — which will become larger and more diversified — “serves as kind of an extended staff for us because they help out through committees and task forces to get some of the work done.”

The plan’s second goal is to strengthen the chamber’s membership retention and growth strategies.

“It’s important for us to listen to our membership and their needs, especially as things have changed over the past couple of months,” said Walsh.

The third goal, said Walsh, is to “grow our presence in local government advocacy and local economic development.”

She hopes the Guilderland Chamber will work with the chambers in Bethlehem and Colonie as well as the Capital Region Chamber and the Upstate New York Black Chamber.

“We’re all in this together and we’re all in similar boats right now because we’re all 501 C (6)s and we’ve not been eligible to receive some of those grants and loans available to other businesses and not-for-profits,” said Walsh. “So it really benefits us to all work together.”

A 501 C (6) organization is a business association that is organized to promote business, but doesn’t generate a profit and doesn’t pay shares or dividends.

Walsh concluded, “We’ve really had to adapt … It’s been a challenging time for everyone. Nobody could have seen this coming so everybody’s been adapting.”

More Guilderland News

  • The biggest factor in the revenue jump is the state’s commitment to make Foundation Aid to schools whole. “It looks like that three-year phase-in, at least from the governor’s perspective, is going to happen, so that’s tremendous news for our school district and school districts throughout the state,” Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders, said on Tuesday.

  • In a Jan. 5 letter to the Surface Transportation Board, village attorney Allyson Phillips writes that Altamont is opposed to CSX’s attempted acquisition of Pan Am Systems because the running of a 1.7-mile-long train twice per day over the Main Street railroad crossing would leave parts of the village inaccessible to emergency responders for as long as 10 minutes.  

  • Albany County has just directed schools to change from a 10-day period of isolation for infected students to a five-day period, so Guilderland is following suit, said Superintendent Marie Wiles.

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