Eastern valley chambers of commerce may merge into one

Three eastern Coachella Valley chambers of commerce could soon be one.

La Quinta, Indio and Coachella, along with the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, are close to forming the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Supporters tout cost and other benefits for the nonprofit business organizations and their members as the impetus for the merger.

“We have been actively promoting this move and having grassroots conversations with members for over a year now – longer in some cases,” said Josh Bonner, Indio’s chamber president/CEO.

Over the past few weeks, La Quinta and Indio chamber boards have approved the move while the Coachella board is expected to vote on the proposal next week.

No jobs will be cut in the merger, interim La Quinta Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Susie Harvey said.

Rather it offers an opportunity to add positions, including full-time economic development, public relations and legislative specialists that the chambers can’t independently afford now, Harvey said.

There are currently several chambers of commerce in the Coachella Valley. Each incorporated city has its own as do Thousand Palms and Sky Valley. There is also the Indio-based Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of the Coachella Valley and Southern California Black Chamber of Commerce.

While businesses now pay separate membership fees for every chamber they belong to, they would pay just one fee under the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce but have exposure in all three cities.

“We are talking about geographically defined areas that sit within minutes of each other with very few businesses that only conduct business within their own area,” Bonner said.

If the merger is approved, the new corporation would be formed in January with the transition complete and an executive director in place by the July 1 start of the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Chamber offices and visitor centers that already exist in the three cities would remain open with a manager for each office.

“We need to protect what is unique to each of the communities,” Harvey said.

There are chamber-hosted events that are unique to each of the cities that are expected to remain while there will also be opportunity to expand and creating new, joint venture events.

Combining current memberships of the three chambers would give the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber a starting membership of about 1,000.

The combined operating budget of the three chambers as they exist now would be about $1.2 million, Bonner said.

“Right now, that pie is being sliced into three pieces having to pay for redundant resources, three executives, three annual audits, three accountants, separate legal counsel. I could go on. … By combining the backend operations, it allows us cost savings that will free up money for chamber functions that either don’t currently exists or are not shared,” Bonner said.

Membership fees would be tiered, starting at about $300 per year for small businesses, according to the proposal.

There would be one board of directors, though existing boards are expected to remain in place through June 30.

The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians Tribal Government would also have a seat at the board and “is very excited about the prospect of a Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce,” tribe officials said.

The tribe, with its Fantasy Springs Resort Casino and other related businesses, has been a longtime supporter of the Indio Chamber of Commerce.

“Additionally, if the merger goes forward the plan contemplates hiring a full-time legislative staff person, who in addition to monitoring local and state legislative activities, will also monitor federal legislation,” tribe officials said.

With a vote still pending, Coachella Chamber of Commerce President Chris Bennett said the organization has no comment at this time.

While approval by the three cities isn’t necessary for the merger to occur, the chambers have presented their plans to each of the councils.

Mayors from all three on Wednesday expressed their support for the merger.

La Quinta, Indio and Coachella, in collaboration with Riverside County, recently formed the East Valley Coalition to help bolster the east valley economy.

The possible merger of the chambers of commerce would complement that new coalition, the mayors said.

When first presented to the La Quinta City Council last month, Mayor Linda Evans was most concerned that the city’s branding not be lost in the merger.

Presentations since have outlined the process in more detail and have helped ease her concerns, she said.

“I can see the value from a business perspective,” said Evans, who served on the La Quinta Chamber board before joining the City Council in 2009.

“It’s a challenge for businesses – especially small businesses – who want to belong to other chambers,” she said.

Such a merger would also provide cost savings to the larger corporations – such as JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio where Evans is the associate administrator of Business Development – that tend to belong to numerous chambers of commerce in and out of the valley.

“I commend the committee that has been working toward this and garnering the support and sharing the concept. … It’s not an easy task,” she said. “I’m excited at the prospect of developing something greater.”

Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez echoed much of what Evans said.

“There could be a lot of strengths and benefits in terms of offering more (chamber) staff,” he said.

Hernandez supports the merger, but said it is important that the chambers continue to respond to the individual business needs in each of the cities.

“It’s important to be sure that Coachella’s voice will continue to be heard,” he said.

It’s long overdue, especially in the east valley, which is seeing a lot of growth and development, Indio Mayor Glenn Miller said of the potential merger.

“This gives us an opportunity to reach out to more people and to create more jobs and opportunities,” Miller said.

Asked if he sees a down side to the merger, Miller said: “At this time, no.”

He expects there will be “hiccups” in the beginning, “but right now, I think it’s a very, very positive move for the whole east valley.”

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