Chamber of Commerce rises from the ashes

By Alex Lee

The phoenix is an immortal bird of Greek mythology that obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor. The story has strong parallels to the recent rebirth of the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce.

Small town chambers often struggle more than their big city counterparts. Their membership doesn’t have the volume and depth, and their communities lack some of the funding mechanisms and opportunities that larger population centers provide. On the flip side of the coin, the smaller chambers can create more face-to-face and hands-on opportunities with less geographic territory and fewer competing and conflicting businesses and government institutions to navigate.

Over the past several years a number of factors created a massive storm that brought the Vicksburg Chamber to what could have been a very rapid death spiral. The chamber had developed and maintained a very popular yearly event known as the Taste of Vicksburg. The event was a lucrative fundraiser that had become an easy event to plan, and through the years repetition made it less difficult to run. In hindsight, perhaps things had become too comfortable.

While the downtown infrastructure project was talked about long before the actual deconstruction of the downtown streets, the village hadn’t seen a project of this size in 80 years. Planning is always solid for what you anticipate, but no project stays clear of the unanticipated. A massive hole through the middle of town with sidewalks gone takes a toll on a business. What nobody could have anticipated, the Covid pandemic, tipped the scales in many negative ways.

Loss of revenue caused every business new challenges. Some barely survived and others didn’t. The Vicksburg Chamber went from 60 members down to 15. The pandemic canceled the Taste of Vicksburg. When things were returning to normal, businesses were having difficulty finding employees, with a decline in membership, no fundraisers and a newly developed social district presenting some challenges, a damaged and depleted chamber board could not bring back the Taste of Vicksburg in the first year.

The current Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce president, Nick DeVito, credits an informal meeting between a couple business owners and a village official as being the catalyst for a new chamber. Remaining board members were approached and asked if they would support handing the organizational reins over to a new board, with their endorsement and a huge thank you for keeping the organization together and with a pulse through the devastation. They agreed. Through a series of discussions and meetings a new board was recruited. DeVito said, “It was my intent to help recruit and establish only. I made it clear that I would not accept a position on the new board.” Although when the new board was established and the members voted DeVito into the president role, he “reluctantly” agreed. The new board also included Alysse Thomas, vice president; Carley Bosker, treasurer; Tory Hollister, secretary; and Rachel Plankenhorn, Zack Bishop, Shelby VanderKamp, Leslie Pitts, and Ryan Wagner (who has since resigned to pursue a new career opportunity).

DeVito says, “The first order of business was to debrief and dispel any notion that the village was the cause, or an adversary, in any of what happened. Quite the contrary, they provided grants and other advice and opportunities that kept many of us going. They gave us a hand in our rebirth, and a brand-new beautiful downtown to help revitalize.” Our second order of business was a new yearly fundraiser, which we called the Ice Burg Festival which debuted in February 2023, and was a resounding success. “We have meetings monthly, usually on the 2nd Tuesday of the month. The meetings are on a three-month cycle, the first being a board only meeting, the next month is a public meeting, and the third will be a mixer event open to members and non-members, and then the cycle repeats. The chamber also joined a recent Wednesday Burg Days of Summer event by hosting a cornhole tournament with proceeds going to provide backpacks for children in need.”

DeVito adds, “Next steps are meeting with other chambers to share ideas and best practices, realizing that we don’t need to reinvent all the spokes on the new, and bigger wheel we need to become. Additionally, we have seen membership rebound somewhat, but we have some work to do.”

DeVito also gives credit to the new board members, “There is not a more intelligent, enthusiastic, determined, and optimistic team, able to work together to address and see our mission through.”

Colette Werden is credited with the quote regarding the story of the phoenix, “It’s ok if you fall down and lose your spark. Just make sure that when you get back up, you rise as the whole damn fire.” That would certainly apply in Vicksburg.

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