By Holly Hammersmith | Photo by Jim Baron
June Stalnaker, the executive director and treasurer of the chamber, has been a chamber member for 30-plus years. She is also an insurance agent with McMichael Insurance Agency, which has offices in Uniontown and Streetsboro. Small communities such as these are served by the chamber, which is unique. Members represent not only Akron and its surrounding areas but also from across the state.
The chamber’s roots are deep, having been formed in 1862. Formerly known as the West Akron Board of Trade, the chamber began the rebranding process in 2013 and adopted its new name the next year, Stalnaker says.
“We decided it was time to update our organization, make it more current — in tune with the times, if you will,” she says. “After brainstorming and looking at the area where the majority of our members are located, we found there was some correlation to the Towpath area. It was a fresh beginning for our organization.”
The Towpath Trail is an 85-mile multipurpose trail that runs south from Cleveland to New Philadelphia. The chamber is also affiliated with the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition.
“As time continues we’re planning to incorporate more events that allow our members and their guests to enjoy the many scenic areas of the Towpath,” Stalnaker says.
That promotion will kick off with a fundraiser the third week of September. It will benefit the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition and promote the Towpath Trail.
Chamber membership is open to anyone but geared toward smaller businesses that often find themselves lost in the shuffle of organizations focused on large corporations, Stalnaker says.
“Our membership consists of small- to medium-size businesses as well as concerned citizens from the area who want to better the community,” she says. “Anybody who owns a business or even works for a business is eligible to join.”
Despite having members from all over the state, most chamber events and meetings take place in the Akron area. About 150 members comprise the chamber, up from 102 just two years ago before the rebrand. That number continues to grow, Stalnaker says.
“What’s helped increase the membership is just our membership committee actively making sure that we receive the renewals as well as reaching out to new members,” she says. “We have been able to increase our membership and also maintain membership because of what we offer as a chamber for such a low price. Our goal is to help the businesses, and in turn they can help each other.”
In addition to offering members an especially appealing discount on Anthem Health Insurance, the chamber also offers members reduced premiums for workers’ compensation, benefits through a Chamber Energy Aggregation Program, and access to a digital marketing program. All of this comes with the nominal membership fee of $90 per year.
The chamber hosts one large fundraiser annually to benefit a local organization — this year’s fundraiser being the benefit for the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition. Past donations have been given to Habitat for Humanity, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, the Fairlawn Police Department, and the Akron Police Department. Chamber members have also volunteered their time to help organizations, Stalnaker says.
Remaining events throughout the year include “After Five,” which are after-hours networking events. Each event includes a speaker or extensive networking. Past speakers have discussed tax ramifications for small businesses, business estate planning, and upcoming changes to workers’ compensation.
“A lot of members are saying we just don’t have time during the day to take away from our businesses to come in and sit at a meeting,” she says. “We try to do a speaker meeting one month and then networking the next month at one of our member businesses. It’s amazing the things you find out about people at these events, and it gives you a chance to meet new people also because we invite other people in hopes that they’re going to join but also to help our members meet other people that they can do business with.”
“After Five” meetings are open to both chamber members and nonmembers and are an effective referral source, she adds.
“Usually when we have meetings we have them in a local restaurant, and because they’re in the evening if people just want to bop in and listen to the speaker and not buy dinner they don’t have to. That’s their option,” Stalnaker says.
Stalnaker says chamber leaders found this type of format was more affordable for small business owners and also allowed a more flexible time commitment. Networking and speaker events typically draw 30 to 40 members.
“Because it’s a small group, our members can get more individual attention, whereas if you belong to a larger group it’s just you’re a member, you’re a number,” she says.
For more information: wabot.org