​Guilderland Chamber of Commerce wants to grow

ALBANY COUNTY — The Guilderland Chamber of Commerce is looking to extend its services to local businesses in Altamont, Voorheesville, and the Hilltowns.

The chamber is in the opening stages of forming a business committee for Altamont, said Michelle Viola-Straight, the chamber’s president, an Altamont resident for the past 20 years.

About two weeks ago, Viola-Straight said, the chamber reached out all of the businesses in Altamont to find out what it could do to help those businesses. In the next few weeks, she said, the chamber plans to hold a formal meeting with interested business owners, to discuss the challenges that they are facing.

The purpose of the chamber, Viola-Straight said, is to create a networking system for businesses.

“So, it does a few different things,” Viola-Straight said of the chamber, it’s a think tank, “it’s where you can put everybody into one room, go around and discuss challenges, or discuss promotions, and how you could do more referrals.”

The chamber, which has close to 400 active members, Viola-Straight said, creates a networking system for businesses. “It’s a way of expanding your business,” she said, a way to market your business.

“It’s a catch-all for all business needs, Viola-Straight said, and lobbies for its members’ interests.

“Being a business owner in the area is a challenge, because you’re never off, you’re always working, you’re always thinking about your business, and what you need to do, and what the next step should be,” Viola-Straight said. “So, the chamber is able to lobby on businesses’ behalf, whether it’s small government or large government, to help with with different laws or regulations that are going to be passed — making communities more business-friendly.”

The chamber’s service area covers Guilderland and its village, Altamont; New Scotland and its village, Voorheesville; and into the Hilltowns, Viola-Straight said, and each area has its own set of challenges.

“If you go out to Berne and Knox — Knox, obviously, they’re changing a lot of their zoning … So, that’s a hot topic out there.” she said. “If you go into Westerlo, it’s completely different,” she said, naming high-speed internet and its availability for businesses as a challenge.

In the villages, Viola-Straight said, it’s about helping existing, successful businesses.

“There’s not a ton of folks in these areas, but, you look, and we don’t have a large business turnover rate, which is fantastic,” she said. “These folks that own businesses in these areas are very resilient; they know how to keep their business afloat even though they have a limited amount of resources … clients or customers in this area.”

“So, I think, it’s a matter of playing off a lot of their strengths,” Viola-Straight said, “seeing how we can help these businesses grow with already the amazing base that they have.”

Benefits of membership

Viola-Straight offered an example of current motivation for chamber membership.

She met recently with a young woman who is in marketing, she said, and explained that the type of service the young woman provides may soon be needed by local businesses.

“It was super interesting and great information that we’re going to pass along to our members,” she said. “Basically, if you’re just using social media as marketing for your business, there’s going to be a huge change.” Social-media marketing is not going to be as effective as it was, Viola-Straight said. “So, you’re really going to need to look at it and revamp your marketing plan.”

Earlier this year, in response to fake news posts and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Facebook announced its news-feed app would show more posts from family and friends, and less “public” content from businesses and publishers. The move, some businesses claimed, led to a decrease page views, which led to a decrease in profits.

That’s where the chamber, Viola-Straight said, comes into play. It’s able to put together a plan for its members that may help them “jump some hurdles.”

One benefit, she said, is that the chamber offers all of its members a free website. “For a smaller or medium business, it could cost you anywhere from $100 to $200, or $300 a month for a web hosting,” Viola-Straight said. “To have a web presence, people need more than just a Facebook or Twitter link.”

The chamber, through an insurance provider, also provides health-care benefits, Viola-Straight said, and has seen an increase recently in the number of members purchasing it through the chamber.

“So, traditionally people used to use chambers just for healthcare,” Viola-Straight said, meaning business owners would join just to get a better deal on insurance. “Then a lot of the health-care needs changed within the past five, six years.”

The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, made health-care insurance more affordable for individuals and small businesses.

Immediately, small businesses were eligible for tax credits worth up to 35 percent of an employer’s contribution to employees’ health insurance.

In 2013, the Health-Insurance Marketplace opened, which allowed individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable insurance.

In 2014, the small-business tax credit was increased up to 50 percent of an employer’s contribution to employees’ health insurance.

Also included in the ACA was the individual mandate, which required most Americans, who didn’t have it already, to purchase health-insurance coverage.

Earlier this year, the individual mandate was repealed; health-care costs have, and are expected, to increase.

“Everybody kind of jumped ship right at the get-go, and went on their own,” Viola-Straight said. “But now costs are rising, things are changing, coverage is changing … It’s almost [come] full circle, and we have more and more people calling that used to use the chamber as the insurance provider, that are now coming back to that.”

“I’ve seen, it has been more of a hot topic within the past, I want to say, six to eight months, than it was previously,” she said.

Viola-Straight points out that the chamber has remained a constant.

“We’ve kept up with the times, but we did not alter anything,” she said. “We still offer the same quality coverage that we did before.”

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