By Amy Watkins <i>For HBJ</i>
MONROE — When Annique Bennett became executive director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce two years ago she knew the organization was going through a difficult time.
She didn’t know just how bad things were for the chamber.
“I very quickly was in a situation where we were wondering if we were going to be around,” said Bennett, 49.
The Monroe Chamber of Commerce, which in 2008 reached a high of 400 members, was down to 160 members.
The organization could no longer afford the leased building space on Main Street that housed its Visitor Information Center. Events that were once fundraisers were no longer successful.
City officials warned that money routinely allocated to the chamber from hotel/motel tax would be cut off if changes weren’t made, said Meghan Manning, board president and owner of Health Happenings.
“The city made that quite clear a year and half ago,” she said.
Difficult discussions followed.
Bennett and the Monroe Chamber of Commerce board of directors made a decision to break the lease on the building space and move into a much smaller office across the street.
“It was very painful for a community to have to come to grips with that it had to go away,” Bennett said. “We had a little bit of division because some people were so set on just trying to make money to pay the rent. The chamber was so associated with that brick-and-mortar space.”
Bennett and members of the board met routinely for months to go over bookkeeping and to work out a budget. Bennett, who served as the marketing and tourism coordinator for the City of Bothell and later as the executive director of the Downtown Issaquah Association before coming to Monroe, wanted to use her experience to help define the chamber’s role while also promoting tourism. She reached out to Mark Mattson, a former Temple University professor, who develops software for the tourism industry.
Mattson agreed that his New Jersey-based company, Cartonova, would create a website, choosemonroe.com, for the Monroe Chamber of Commerce. The site cost the chamber $2,000 and officially launched in December 2012.
“It’s a lovely tool that didn’t replace our visitor center but it gave us a place to start,” Bennett said. “It gave us an online presence and it gave everybody a chance to have their brochure, so to speak.”
The website allows a shift that involves having the city as the focal point and not the chamber of commerce, Bennett added.
It gives information about businesses throughout the city, including maps and links to websites. Visitors to the site can learn about attractions and lodging options as well as create an itinerary that can be shared with others through email and social media sites. Chamber members receive their own page on the site and exclusive access to connect with other members.
The chamber has a “success story people should be interested in,” Mattson said. He added that cities larger than Monroe are more likely to boast both a chamber of commerce and a separate destination marketing organization.
“A place like Monroe has to do everything,” Mattson said. “(The website) is serving on two levels. It’s serving as a face for tourism but on the back end it’s serving for chamber member communication.”
The Monroe Chamber of Commerce welcomed 40 new members last year and in June moved into leased space in the Monroe Masonic Center at 125 S. Lewis St. Bennett, chamber operations manager, Shelley Nyhammer, and board members worked on improving the quality of main events including the Monroe Fair Days Parade and the annual holiday celebration, Light Up Monroe. That renewed focus resulted in $20,000 in sponsorships between the two events.
The Monroe Chamber of Commerce now has nearly 200 members and will mark its 45th anniversary this year. It has experienced a huge turnaround, Manning said.
“It’s been an amazing ride I will say that,” Manning said. “(The website’s) been a huge asset to the tourism side of things as well as our membership. I’m so excited about tourism and bringing people to Monroe.”
The chamber this spring plans to launch a ‘Ride Here’ campaign with local businesses to highlight activities like horse riding, bicycling, and wakeboarding, as well as attractions including the Evergreen Speedway and Evergreen State Fair rides.
“We have the assets already here, we just needed to come together and start some messaging,” Bennett said. “The challenge is to present clearer, stronger, more compelling messages that can be the first conversation about Monroe.”
In the future, Bennett would like to see more artists working in the city and some revenue from tourism used to create new street signs and furnishings.
She added that she is proud of the work that has been done so far.
“I’m proud of the community and I’m proud of the way these organizations stayed with us,” Bennett said. “It is really important for chambers to exist in small towns… We’re sort of out here by ourselves and it’s incredibly important for our businesses to have representation. I’m real proud that we’ve been able to do it.”